Sunday, September 28, 2008

How Al Borland ruined my life.

Seven years from now, when I’m living in a refrigerator box while summering in the G train, sitting in Union Square with a cardboard sign that reads “This used to be my front door,” and surviving by licking the residue off of discarded Dippin’ Dots cups (it will, after all, be the future), I’ll look back to September 2008 as the month that it all broke bad. No, not because that was when the dollar failed and the Depression set in, leaving us all to wonder why we’d spent decades collecting those pictures of George Washington; the real reason September ’08 will go down as the month that I lost all hope of being a functional and productive member of society is because that was when I got the Game Show Network.

See, as a writer, I am on a never-ending search for a reason not to write. As someone who’s not very good at sports, I love word games. And as an American, I love shouting at the TV. This being the case, Game Show Network is kind of like my heroin, which is to say that it makes me spout random nonsense, laugh like an idiot, and eventually pass out on the couch.

The appeal of the game show goes beyond the game itself. Really, it doesn’t matter if I’m watching The All-New Press Your Luck or 1970’s Match Game; the true joy is in all of the tropes and traditions that haven’t changed since the conception of the genre. The flashing lights, sharply dressed host, the ever-constant mood of joviality, and the fact that Barbara from Kentucky just won $2,000 for guessing the word “fire hydrant”—it’s all very surreal, very unironic, and very comforting in the fact that even the most modern game shows could have worked fifty years ago.

The crown jewels of the Game Show Network are Lingo and Family Feud. Lingo has it all. There’s the punny title—you see, it’s a word game that incorporates bingo! There’s the host who you’re pretty sure you’ve seen before, and whose affability and devotion to the game you have to respect, even as you wonder if he’s a not little creepy and maybe, secretly, a drunk; as a bonus, his name is “Chuck.” There’s the largely unnecessary yet likeable leggy-blonde co-host whose main job seems to be to smile and occasionally hold up a thing; as a bonus, her name is “Shandi.” And then there are the contestants. Lingo’s male contestants are the “solid-colored, untucked button-down shirt” type; its females are of the “waves hi to her kids and ‘the girls back at home’ while blinking less than she should” variety. Everybody high-fives, and often. The game itself is great; the packaging is amazing. I once happened upon a Lingo marathon on New Year’s Eve; I spent the last few hours of 2006 guessing hidden words and winning hypothetical money.

Family Feud, meanwhile, is awesome for the reason that, well for one thing, it’s the Family Feud. The game is harder than it looks and the contestants are dumber than they should be, leading to exchanges like: “Name something you buy in pairs;” “I, um…paper!” If we’re watching the latest incarnation, the game itself makes up for hosts John O’Hurley or Louie Anderson (Richard Karn, meanwhile, proved surprisingly enjoyable in his run). And if we’re watching the ‘70s version, just…you guys. 1970s families making 1970s guesses to 1970s surveys on a 1970s set. Game shows do not get any better.

Which brings me to the main reason I can’t stop watching the Game Show Network—game show reruns make for a fascinating look into the culture of the day and portal to a different time. The moustaches alone are worth the price of admission. The “celebrity” guests—bawdy, loud caricatures who got all dressed up just to help the common folk win some money (and who, to the modern audience, are famous solely for being on old game shows)—only sweeten the deal (also, they smoke in the studio! It’s awesome!). Watching the games themselves, we can see how differently people’s brains worked and how the language has changed over the decades—sometimes it’s near impossible to play along; meanwhile, the fact that 68% of old game shows relied on constants’ “unintentionally” providing double-entendres offers insight into the values of any given period. A real-life example of these last two points: ‘70s celebrity offers “bosom” as a clue, to which ‘70s Password contestant, giggles, blushes, giggles some more, before shyly and correctly guessing “knockers” on the first try—an exchange that simply wouldn’t happen or play out that way in this day an age.

And then there are the contestants—folks who were cast mainly for their ability to be cartoonishly normal, the Real People of their age (the next contestant, after all, could be you!). Sure, laughing at their giant glasses, hairstyles, and leisure suits is one way to go. But as the credits begin to roll and the contestants smile and gaze around the glowing studio, unable to believe their luck as their wildest dreams have actually come true (because don’t everyone’s wildest dreams involve Charles Nelson Reilly?), an air of quiet tragedy arises out of the whole thing. My mind drifts toward thoughts of how, by now, Barbara From Kentucky is 72 years old. She’s long since spent her $2,000, and sold that set of elegant crystal stemware at a garage sale, a stranger having haggled it down to $1.50 per glass—in the end, she just wanted to be rid of them. Her dream come true has become a rerun, a syndicated diversion on a three-digit cable channel that people leave on for background noise. And, okay fine, her hairstyle seems to imply that the laws of physics have changed since 1973, but at least it distracts from her giant tinted eyeglasses. Hey-o!

But then, I’m sure the rule still applies to most people that if you want to contemplate the futility of human existence, you put on Mad Men, not the Game Show Network. And before you start worrying that maybe I just need therapy, rest assured—Game Show Network also has a show called Russian Roulette. On Russian Roulette, if you offer a wrong answer, the host pulls a lever and the floor suddenly opens beneath you, leaving you to plummet into what I can only assume are the depths of Hell. I find this show awesome only for the obvious reasons, and not because it’s some existential portal that highlights the temporality of man and his possessions. And besides, I'm sure Barb is happily sipping some $2,000 champagne out of her crystal stemware even now.