Friday, December 11, 2009

Culture: Game Shows

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - I view watching certain game shows as a possible sign of commitment to life-long learning. Some people in retirement watch soap operas, but my Great Aunt Pauline mostly watches a wide range of game shows. Her cable package includes the Game Show Network, which includes a variety of both classic shows, like the $100,000 Pyramid and Family Feud, and a variety of newer shows, including Deal or No Deal and Catch 21.

Deal or No Deal may be entertaining, but the contestants really don't need any skill to play the game. Catch 21 is somewhat better, as one needs to answer basic-knowledge questions, an alarming number of which seem to be from the entertainment industry, in order to be subjected to the luck of the draw--or at least to have any control over it. Still, luck plays a major role, which probably adds to the appeal for a general audience, but means that the best player doesn't always win.

By these standards, the all-time best game show is probably Jeopardy!, hosted by Canadian Alex Trebek, which continues to run to this day, distributed by King-World. Skill with the clicker may make a difference, but mostly what matters is deep knowledge of the world. Jeopardy! has had a major impact on North American culture, with people phrasing answers in the form of a question for no other reason than the influence of the show, and its theme music being the most common way to keep track of a thirty-second period.

There is a newer game that I think rivals Jeopardy! in some ways. It's not found on the Game Show Network or even in syndication, but on the Discovery Channel. Cash Cab has a great premise--a cab that pays you instead of you paying a fare. Of course, in order to earn cash, one has to answer questions. They may not be as hard as the ones on Jeopardy, but they're good enough for my taste. Host Ben Bailey, who not only came up with the concept but had to get his New York cabbie license, manages the game while driving passengers to their destination. If they miss three questions, they have to get out and hail another cab; if they need help, they can do a "mobile shout-out" (the "life line" we became so familiar with through Millionaire) or a "street shout-out" to a passer-by on the sidewalk. Plus, one gets to learn the geography of Manhattan by paying attention to the cab's route. This is the most clever game show to come along in some time, and it's probably no coincidence that it is on the generally more intellectual Discovery Channel.

Of course, I don't take cabs. Maybe Portland can have a cash streetcar?

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