Monday, December 10, 2007

Let's Get Game Shows Off the Pole

I don’t like to be quizzed. Nor am I a board game enthusiast. I don’t solve crossword puzzles in my spare time. I’d rather look out the window and daydream as the graffitied rocks of the Bronx and train station billboards whiz by my Metro North window. It should come as no surprise then that prime-time game shows are not this avid television watcher’s favorite genre. It ranks with science fiction as one of those elements of television life that generally speaking doesn’t make a dent. In my world, where my remote is a sort of magic wand, I’m free to banish the bare-headed Howie Mandel and his bevy of “Deal or No Deal” beauties to dwell in the periphery, at an unceasing and benign distance.

I didn’t always feel this way. Casting my television memory back to the 1980s, it’s clear that the daytime game shows I grew up with were a different animal. They were chummier than their 21st century, nocturnal counterparts. In most cases, “goofy” would not be inaccurate. But hey, it wasn’t 1990 yet. We hadn’t all gotten the memo from Quentin Tarantino that everything we did had to look like a nerd’s version of cool.

I wasn’t a daily watcher of “The Price is Right” but I understood the feel good place it was coming from, ditto for Dick Clark and his “$25,000 Pyramid” or Vicki Lawrence and Jim Jay Bullock and their giant paper easel on “Win, Lose or Draw”. Though I was never a die hard fan of these shows, their existence was okay by me. I occasionally tuned in to watch with a wary but amused eye, the way you would an increasingly senile grandparent who tells charming stories of a time you can’t imagine really existed and is prone to profanities and random bouts of narcolepsy. Among the game show hosts of that time, Richard Dawson, the original host of “The Family Feud”, looms large. Here was true “cool” personified. He didn’t need a dramatically dark set and busy lighting to tell us so. Dawson was simultaneously gallant and lewd with his famous on-the-mouth smooching of his female contestants who never seemed to mind.

But why dwell in the past when we’ve got greats like Jeff Foxworthy and Joey Fatone to fawn over? Wow…Joey Fatone. How did it all go so horribly wrong? Normally, I wouldn’t even waste my time worrying about the state of the American game show. They’ve always been safely relegated to the fringes. Except, this winter, with the writers’ strike reaching an ugly standstill, I fear that the winter schedules so thick with new prime time game shows will make a run-in inevitable. This new crop of programming continues the trend towards startlingly low brow, besting the likes of “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader”, with gems like, “The Moment of Truth” which has contestants answering questions like “Do you really care about the starving children in Africa?” while hooked up to a lie detector.

Have we really reached the point where even our game shows have to become sordid? They’ve morphed from endearing grandparent to that second cousin no one talks about with a meth twitch, questionable hygiene and the inability to chew with his mouth closed. Where have you gone, Chuck Woolery? You said you’d be back in two and two.