October 18, 2007

Come on Down!

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Upon returning from my 10:05 class this Tuesday, I experienced something beyond cruelty, something beyond the savagery of prelims, something beyond the futility of motivating myself to trek to class in pre-winter 40 degree weather—I turned on The Price Is Right and saw not a warm, grandfatherly Bob Barker wrangling hyperventilating college kids around the stage but rather a chubby guy with goofy glasses awkwardly stuffed into a suit, stiffly asking the announcer to please show us the next item up for bid. What a sick joke it was.

As one of the many college students who spend an inordinate amount of time debating the relative fairness of Dice Game, I knew that Drew Carey would make his debut as host this week. But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t surprised to see Drew once I flipped on CBS. Yeah I heard that Bob was leaving and Drew was taking over, but it never truly dawned me that Bob wouldn’t be there anymore.

It’s like trying to watch Legends of the Hidden Temple without a mock-excited Kirk Fogg giving the dramatic play-by-play. It’s like trying to watch Singled Out without a half-naked Jenny McCarthy sloppily shouting drunken slurs at the camera. To leave the mid-90s behind, it’s like trying to watch Deal or No Deal without a slickly dressed Howie Mandel awkwardly trying to avoid physical contact with the germ-incubating contestants. These shows just wouldn’t be the same without their respective hosts, The Price Is Right especially.

We live in an age where game shows can only get on air if they either: a) give away obscene amounts of money to contestants who pretty much just stand around and hit a button, or b) give away obscene amounts of money to contestants who do obscene things. But The Price Is Right doesn’t fit either of these criteria. The show doesn’t give away that much money, and even if it does, it’s pretty damn hard to win it. In some pricing games, you have to know the price of soap, crackers, mouthwash, Tide and vitamins just to get a chance to win a living room. How can they get away with that? If Howie Mandel came out on Deal or No Deal and said, “Okay you can win $3000 worth of furniture, but you have to guess within $10 of the price of this ceiling fan in order to get the chance to do; so, deal?” the show would get canceled in a second. Let’s face it; The Price Is Right gives away junk compared to contemporary game shows. But, despite this discrepancy in prize value, The Price Is Right continues to be America’s favorite game show for two reasons—Bob and Plinko.

Bob was born to be the host of The Price Is Right. He provoked the hysterical atmosphere of the show but also served as the voice of calm amidst the madness. He built suspense perfectly. He made outdated quips that no one under 70 really got, but we loved it anyway. He internalized the location each value amount on the big wheel and magically predicted where the wheel would stop even though it looked like it was going to be close. He made guessing the price of fabric softener fun again.

Now that Bob is really gone, the show is fundamentally different. Trying to judge Drew right now would be like trying to judge Wilson Betemit next year after Alex Rodriguez leaves the Yankees. I don’t care how good Drew or Wilson Betemit are; they will never live up to the legends who preceded them, at least not for a few years. So to review Drew’s performance thus far would be a bit premature, as he must first be given the opportunity to emerge from beneath Bob’s shadow.

Under Bob there was a suspension of reality that developed within the show. Bob only existed within The Price Is Right, so going on the show kind of felt like entering an entirely different world. You entered a world where it was rational for someone to guess that a lawnmower cost $1. You entered a world where yeah you had a chance to win a trip to Nashville, but the real prize was standing next to such a mythical gift-giver as Bob Barker. You entered a world where it was kind of cute when some old man spoke of the importance of castrating pets. Now that Bob is gone and semi-celebrity Drew has taken over, that other worldliness will certainly not be as pronounced.

I’m not saying that the show will be worse; it will just be a very different The Price Is Right. Time, as they say, will tell.

Although Bob has moved on, I don’t worry about the future of The Price Is Right. It’s too deeply engrained in American popular culture to just disappear. And even if the show finds itself in the slightest bit of decline it can further utilize its most potent weapon—Plinko. The overwhelming excitement experienced at the precise moment when the doors burst open to reveal the Plinko board transcends the realm of game show. For some reason, the proposition of chips plinking down a Plexiglas board sends the audience into utter euphoria. It is that intangible aspect of Plinko that makes the pricing game the most exciting in game show history.

In many ways, Plinko is a metaphor for The Price Is Right. There is an initial surge of energy, wild colors, glitter, piercing sounds and a chaos of numbers shouted from the audience, and the build up of suspense as the chip frantically dances down the board toward the ultimate payoff. Then there is the intangible. There is that aspect that makes it okay that the possibility of winning the maximum $50,000 is miniscule. There is just something about the chaos that justifies The Price Is Right’s purpose—not to give away prizes but to give away excitement. All people want to be on The Price Is Right not because they want to win luggage or a trip to Indianapolis, but because they want to experience the essence of excitement; they want to be a part of a raw excitement that is scarce in the world at large.

Will our favorite game show suffer from the loss of Bob? It remains to be seen. The absence of Bob will certainly change the way people watch the show. But I have faith that the show has the ability to adapt. I suspect that we will be watching The Price Is Right for years to come; there is just something about it.

And as always, help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered.