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Big Bucks..No Whammy…Stop on….Stupidity October 10, 2006

Posted by doctorolove in Pop Culture Rants, TV.
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It’s a proven economic fact that you need money. They’ve done studies and stuff.

And it’s a general rule that you can only get money one of two ways: earn it or receive it. Receiving it usually comes from a rich relative that lived in squalor with a gaggle of cats but secretly hid a small fortune in collectible coins in a slight tear beneath their mattress. Or it’s a rich patriarch whose cash has enabled you to live a life only written about in trashy romance novels and whose sudden untimely death from a bad batch of caviar has left you an empire. Sure, it comes with a boatload of responsibility, making a nice template for a bad 80’s coming of age film, but it’s still money you did nothing to get.

So most of us have to earn our cash. And we do. Some of us commit to backbreaking labor. Others feel that a career in an office cubicle surrounded by fake fichus plants and Earl from accounting who always smells like Patchouli and chicken stock is the way to go. Earning money is only limited by your work ethic. Well, that and a sliding tax scale based solely on economic factors that are determined by a complex series of general income indicators and current governmental spending. Oh, and the general price quotient of a Paris Hilton CD (because, who doesn’t want to buy one of those?)

But the American people clamored for another way to get their money. And we looked to the one thing that usually told us what to do in situations of extreme indecisiveness: Television. And TV delivered. In the 1950’s, it invented what we now lovingly call the “game show.” How could this not be a goldmine for everyone involved? The producers make their money by having only one set, quick production time and the costs are usually incurred by some product or service that gets it’s name before the credits. And we, as a public, loved it. Finally, our uncanny ability to recall in order every gold medal winner in the Luge from every Olympics held in an Eastern Bloc country on a Thursday when the temperature falls below freezing can be rewarded (I know that’s an easy one…Thor Hundsen of Sweden and Frank “Lugey Lugerson” McGee of Chippewa Falls). Game shows are the ultimate combination of earning and receiving. Sure, you can receive obscene sums for inane things, but it is truly earning your money. The questions were difficult and random. The sets were designed by some macabre Swedish set decorator who was trying their best to have every aspect of the stage create an environment of tension and torture. And your opponents? Usually a housewife with little more to do during her day then read, recite and memorize the Almanac or some sort of nuclear physicist who, while having all questions pertaining to science on lock, also seems to have a surprising grasp on 18th century French composers and NBC’s Must See TV. The host seems to blend that perfect mish-mash of used-car salesman bravura and Abu Ghraib warden. You earned your money, all right.

And though our early game shows were feats of mental endurance, the 70’s, or in game show circles known as “our years,” were just as difficult a mental excursion. The sets were more garish and though the questions and contestants may have stepped a little back off the diving board into impossibility, the shows were still a lesson in survival. Sure, everybody at home knows the name of the landlords on Three’s Company, but can you answer it in under three seconds before the bright neon box you are trapped in sinks and you are greeted by a buzzer that sounds suspiciously like the dying call of a wombat. And the hosts, at times embarrassed by the ease of their questions, made you earn every penny by flashing Snidely Whiplash smiles that morphed into hugs and kisses when you couldn’t recall all five members of the UN Security Council. And even as the questions loosened and the hosts tried out for Dictator Idol, the shows still made you earn your money by pairing you with B-list celebrities who couldn’t spell DOG if spotted “a D, a G and a round vowel.” The contestant was still earning it, as they put Suzanne Somers or Adrian Zmed on their back and carried them up Cash Mountain, past the Valley of Rice-A-Roni. You still may have breezed through the Lightning Round, but getting there was earning it, to the nth degree.

The eighties began the slow steady decline to where we are now. The sets were still garish and made liberal use of lasers and fog machines (probably on loan from the production crew of Steve Miller Band videos). The hosts were slowly losing their evil edge and replacing it with Aqua Net hair and suits that were colors not found in nature. And the contestants were slowly morphing from Pulitzer Prize candidates to McDonalds Monopoly prize also-rans. Save for Jeopardy (a show that refused to dumb down its’ questions, no matter how many calls the idiotic mass populous and hack stand up comics asked it to). But producers, in all their glory, added a new wrinkle to the money earning machine. Now, it was all about probability and skill. No longer did you have to pay attention in Civics or English class to win a BRAND…NEW…THUNDERBIRD….but instead you only had to pay attention the day your fifth grade teacher taught you “How many red marbles must you pull from a random bag of three yellow, three red and several biting scorpions?” The questions were still there, but served the same purpose as parsley on a plate of steak: Convention says it has to be there, but everybody does it and its not the main draw of the dish by any means. Now the shows were about pressing buzzers at precise times or choosing which card would come out a deck next. Game shows were more Vegas, less Cambridge. And the celebrities…well let’s just say no amount of skill can help you carry Lorenzo Lamas to Prize Peak. (The remaining intelligent celebrities all congregated around the 25,000 Pyramid, however, just for the opportunity to say seemingly innocuous nouns in order, very slowly.)

Which brings us to now. The game show, that once great bastion of earning your money by non-conventional methods, is dead. Sure, they trot out Who Wants To Be A Millionaire now and then, but in order to keep our attention, they inject it with Growth Hormones that turn it into Super Millionaire (Wait for the next incarnation…Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire, But With Shrunken Testicles and Heart Murmurs?) Our game shows now are like Deal or No Deal. Essentially, it is watching a person open thirty birthday presents and hoping the one they decided to keep isn’t holding socks or a copy of the Cool As Ice DVD. This is not a game show: this is watching Howie Mandel shout over sexy models and paint drying. We are no longer earning our money on television: they are giving it to us like starved rats during cheese droughts.

I miss the old days of game shows, when you earned it through cunning skill and brain power. There is tons of cash to give away, but who wants that?

Oh wait, that guy’s eating live larvae…he must want it.

As for me, I’ll sit and sulk, having missed my chance to earn my cash. Because I was on jeopardy once in high school and can never be on again. And larvae gives me gas.

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