Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Password is: boring

I’m near the end of my 10-tape collection of old game shows. Some of the tapes have been highly entertaining, some have been mediocre, but at $1.50 per tape, delivered, it has been well worth the investment. I’ll probably watch most, if not all, of them again because I tend to watch them while doing something else, only stopping occasionally to fixate on the action.

Watching episodes of The Price is Right from the 1970s and ‘80s is quite entertaining. It is interesting to see new cars that are priced less than $10,000. During the earliest episodes of the show a car was valued at less than $3,000. Periodically I’d see foreign cars offered on old shows. I’m not sure when that ended, but if you watch an episode of today’s TPIR you will only see cars from American manufacturers. I’m not sure when I realized this, but I noticed it several years ago. The show has given away numerous Chrysler PT Cruisers in recent years, but never a Volkswagen Beetle. (I thought I heard VW stopped making the Beetles, again. And I haven’t seen as may PT Cruisers on the road lately, or heard much about them. Did Chrysler stop making those?)

Although I can’t remember the price of grocery items or furniture from years past, I can still try to play along with pricing games. That lack of knowledge just makes the games that much more challenging.

The bottom line is that I can still play along with the show, whether I’m watching a 2007 episode or a 1977 episode. And to me that’s a key element to a good game show.

Games where you can’t or don’t play along are typically less entertaining to me. I enjoyed watching contestants and celebrities attempting to reach the top of the bonus round pyramid in 60 seconds during the various incarnations of Pyramid, but the main game isn’t that fascinating. You can imagine how you would describe a word to your partner, but that’s not the same as trying to answer questions as they appear on the big board during a game of Jeopardy! or trying to solve the puzzle ahead of the contestants on Wheel of Fortune.

Games where the home audience knows the word or phrase a player is attempting to describe or draw minimizes the entertainment value of the show. Despite that, some shows, such as Password and Pyramid, have been highly successful in multiple incarnations. But I’d rather play along with contestants on classic shows such as Hollywood Squares or Sale of the Century rather than watch shows such as Win, Lose or Draw or Body Language.

Win, Lose or Draw had some success, and was somewhat entertaining to watch simply because people sometimes struggled to convey a word or phrase through their drawings. Body Language, a show that aired for 18 months on CBS in the ‘80s, paired celebrities and contestants in a game of charades. It was rather lame.

Not every quiz show or play-along game is a winner. During the 1990-91 season there was a show called Trump Card, filmed at Trump Castle in Atlantic City, that was basically just a quiz show. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t particularly entertaining or exciting. The bonus game wasn’t spectacular, either, so it doesn’t surprise me it lasted only a season.

Sale of the Century and High Rollers were a lot more fun to watch because they combined elements of luck and spectacle with the traditional quiz format.

In the 1980s incarnation of Sale of the Century the initial bonus round was a bit dull, but through the years the bonus round changed, initially to a game of luck, which provided some excitement, and ultimately to a fast-paced quiz that offered a play-along element. I am not sure why the show hasn’t been broadcast on the Game Show Network, but it should be. The good news is that an updated version of the show, called Temptation, will air this fall.

My favorite game, ironically, is mostly spectacle — the play-along factor is minimal. For my money, Press Your Luck is the best game show of all time.

If I was to produce an update of the show today I’d tweak the format slightly, but for the most part the game, as presented for three years on CBS in the ‘80s, was nearly perfect.

PYL relied minimally upon general knowledge, and even during the general knowledge quizzes a couple of the four questions were relatively easy. That was to ensure each player earned at least one spin of the prize board during both rounds of the game. It wouldn’t be much of a game if the contestants struggled to earn spins.

That flaw aside, the game was quite entertaining, particularly during the second round, as big dollar amounts and numerous bonus spins available on the prize board meant the outcome of the game could swing radically in a short period of time. The play-along factor was limited to asking “what would I do” during spins of the prize board, but damn, that show could be highly entertaining. Not every game was a great one, but many of them were quite exciting through the final spins.

For whatever reason the show failed in its inaugural form on ABC in 1977, when it was called Second Chance. And a short-lived revival as a Game Show Network original game in 2002 didn’t do so well, either. I’ve never seen the original version of the game, but the Game Show Network version had several flaws that made it less entertaining than the CBS version from the ‘80s.

Game shows appeal to people for different reasons. What disappoints me is that viewers today have less choices for game show entertainment on a daily basis than I did in the ‘80s. But thank God Judge Judy (and other judges of her ilk) continues to clog the airwaves. We can learn so much more from her insults than we can from an episode of Tic Tac Dough.

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