The Throes of Game Shows

When we moved to Florida about 18 months ago, some things radically changed. Our dinnertime moved up to about 5:30 or 6'clock, which brought bedtime up to around 9 o’clock.

Maybe it was because we died a little when we moved here, but whatever the case was, that moved our “prime time” television watching to the 6:30–8:00 time frame. I’m an NBC News guy, so the 6:30 half-hour is always dedicated to Lester Holt (and the DVR now catches it every night in case we get a little overzealous with our dinner).

Then, at 7 o’clock sharp, it’s time for the big game. No, I’m not talking Thursday night NFL. I’m talking about AMERICA’S GAME.

Watching “Wheel of Fortune” is sort of like witnessing a minor, multiple-car accident among a caravan of village idiots. Nobody really gets hurt, but it makes you wonder how some of them got their driver’s licenses in the first place.

The public official who arrives at the scene to try to make sense of the mess is journeyman and climate-change denier Pat Sajak, also known as the most jaded man in show business. I probably would be jaded, too, had I hosted thousands upon thousands of these half-hour mind-benders.

The episodes aren’t necessarily “mind-benders” in the sense of being difficult to follow or understand; they’re actually spellbinding because of how inexplicably ingrained they’ve become in TV-watching society. It’s gotten to the point that the two hosts — if you can call Vanna White a host — have attained some of the tightest job security in show business. (Even after Vanna’s job was technically eradicated by a machine a decade ago when they started using digital letter monitors.)

Sajak’s schtick has become just being an outright asshole to whomever he wants and getting away with it. Pay attention next time you’re at your grandparents’ house and it’s on the television. Any time a contestant — usually a male — tries to say something cute or funny, Pat almost immediately shuts him down with some snark, followed by a quick segue to the next contestant or puzzle. It’s become the highlight of the show for us, because the actual game play has become so bad that it’s almost unwatchable.

But the beautiful part is that the show still finds ways to piss us off. For instance, the other night, the category for one of the puzzles was “It’s All Greek to Me!” It was one of the crossword puzzles, which is relatively new and really annoying, because you’d think the writers could be a little less lazy. Toward the end of the puzzle, there were four words displayed:

__ ETA
ATHENS
ACROPOLIS
GYRO

The yokel in yellow decided to solve the puzzle, and he failed. The Doctor and I looked at each other — it’s gotta be FETA, right?

Turns out it could’ve also been ZETA, but it was instead BETA. Really, Wheel of Fortune? Beta?

The Doctor took to Twitter to rant about how the yellow dude was robbed, and I vowed to boycott the show… at least until the next evening. For reasons such as these, we still watch nightly, as if we’ve been cursed by the Sajak.

Truthfully, though, were it not for “Jeopardy!” coming on immediately afterward, we would probably find a less severe waste of time for the 7 to 7:30 time slot (if that’s even possible).

“Jeopardy!” is the Doctor’s favorite, and we typically put our electronics down for this one. This game harbors a lot of the bullshit evident in “Wheel of Fortune,” but it actually features intelligent contestants. We’ll get competitive when it’s a geography category, but he’ll typically sweep the history and flag categories, while I’ll take the language and baseball ones. The airport categories are usually a tossup, too.

Despite the fact that we actively participate in this one, there’s still a lot of consternation related to Alex Trebek’s condescension, some of the ridiculous stories told by contestants, and bullshit categories (like 15th Century Music or the Pioneers of Antarctica).

Those stories, though! After the first commercial break, the proud Canadian “interviews” each contestant, who really just takes the chance to tell one interesting story about him or herself. I’d like to think I would have a long list of interesting stories to tell the world were I to be a “Jeopardy!” contestant, but every single night, you get a story from a middle-aged adult that starts, “Well, when I was in first grade, I brought in a bunny rabbit for show-and-tell, and he ended up escaping and got hit by a school bus.”

Excuse me? THAT’s your “Jeopardy!” story?

Trebek’s passive-aggressive, “smarter than thou” attitude toward the contestants is slightly more annoying than Sajak’s “I just pounded a pitcher of margaritas so I’m going to be outright rude” attitude. But I think I forgive Trebek a little more easily thanks to clips like this one.

(I don’t know how legit this is, but I like it.)

The game-show phenomenon is perplexing to me. Why do so many of us enjoy watching other people play games? Sure, WOF requires a minimal amount of skill, like Hangman, and J! pulls from a broader pool of knowledge, but why do we put up with the assholery of Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek when we could just play a board or video game?

Some game shows are even more pedestrian, like my old favorite as a kid, “Press Your Luck.” There was no skill required whatsoever (other than how loudly you could scream “No whammies no whammies no whammies!!”) From a viewer’s standpoint, there was absolutely no skin in the game. It was akin to watching someone else play roulette. Maybe, as a kid, I just enjoyed the animated Whammies — but that doesn’t explain why it was popular enough to shoot 758 episodes.

It’s clear that there’s something about watching other people play games that our culture can’t get enough of. This is evident in ABC’s prime-time reboot of three old game shows — the $100k Pyramid, Family Feud & Match Game — and their subsequent renewal after better-than-expected ratings. The Pyramid seems to be milking the current popularity of host Michael Strahan, just as Match Game is doing with host Alec Baldwin.

Family Feud is one I just don’t get, though. And after dozens of hosts, it still doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. I don’t mind Steve Harvey (as long as he’s not double-teaming the housing & urban development situation with Sleepy Dr. Ben), but I don’t understand why nearly every game pits a black family against a white family. Sure, maybe they’re making a point to try to equally represent the demographics, but I don’t really see why every matchup has to be black vs. white, even if it IS filmed in Atlanta.

I suppose that’s better than how it was in the ’70s, which featured perpetually drunk host Richard Dawson, who became known for sexually assaulting every female who ever went on the show. Seriously, he kissed every single one of them on the mouth. It became his “thing.”

I guess the answer to the question I’m essentially focusing on — Why the hell do so many people watch game shows? — is the same answer to the question, “Why does anyone watch anything?” Maybe it’s a comforting escape from the events of the day, allowing you to get lost in trivial frivolity. Maybe the show caters to a specific demographic, be it numbskulls who solve Hangman puzzles, brainiacs who have to create questions out of answers from a condescending Canadian or interracial families fighting over bad survey questions, for example. Or maybe it’s just the least of all evils on TV at that particular time (which, here in Jacksonville, includes TMZ, Access Hollywood, Inside Edition, etc. etc.).

Whatever the case, it seems to tap into a part of our society’s psyche that craves competition and an alternative reality where a man directs minions to do whatever he tells them to do, complete with a banal soundtrack and superfluous glitz and glamor. The most compliant minion gets rewarded.

Come to think of it, this is seems eerily like why so many people are enthralled by politics nowadays. Could there be a Trumpian connection…?

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