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A Chance at the Wheel

Dashed hopes and shattered illusions in the audience of The Price Is Right LIVE!

by Josh Potter on June 13, 2013

 

One summer when my brother and I were in Junior High, we watched The Price Is Right every morning—and wouldn’t leave the house until after two subsequent episodes of American Gladiators. Over our second and third bowls of cereal, we’d cooly estimate the price of a Whirlpool washer/dryer to within $50 and yell $1 at the screen when everyone overbid on the mahogany dinette set. It was all a preamble to watching Nitro pummel some never-was college athlete with a foam cudgel. At 14, I longed to run the Eliminator but never thought I’d have the opportunity to hear my name and the words “come on down!” until a touring version of the show, The Price Is Right LIVE!, came through the Palace Theatre recently.

It’s this promise—little-old-you and your little-old-life could be suddenly transformed by a little luck and some consumer savvy—that has made the show so popular since its 1956 debut, 1972 revamp with legendary host Bob Barker, proliferation across the capitalized globe, and transformation into a touring entity 10 years ago (yes, it’s taken Albany a decade for the show to grace our shores). Needless to say, the tour stop sold out two consecutive Friday nights, with extended families, coworker posses and fanatical old people scrambling to affix their yellow nametags over custom-printed T-shirts. I made sure to be no exception.

The touring version of the show differs in many ways from the one on TV, first in the nostalgic video tributes to Barker’s golden era, the fact that contestants are called down for only one game without the opportunity for advancement to higher prizes, and ultimately in the presence of touring host and Hollywood asshat Todd Newton (just Google it). Newton’s self-deprecating reference to his fake tan and porcelain smile didn’t diminish this pacifist’s welling desire to knock the smarm (why so easily confused for charm?) off his focus-grouped mug.

Somehow, in the intervening years since I’d last seen the show, I’d forgotten that The Price is Right is essentially a cavalcade of product pitches, differing from the show’s commercial breaks in only the thinnest framework of a boardwalk game. A carnival barker describes the widget’s attributes—a guitar amp, a home beer refrigerator, a (no joke) recreational slot machine—and a line-up of ordinary folk—off-duty Army private, retired state worker, stay-at-home mom—tell him what they’d pay. The conceit is that the game tests the contestants’ market knowledge and rewards the most frugal with luxury items beyond their pay grade, but the haphazard way products are presented instead stokes an insatiable and irrational lust for whatever the pretty girl unveils. A pre-show tutorial instucted the audience to “ooo” and “ahhh” when a glamorous product was presented. Whether or not my reaction to the unironic appearance of a Shake Weight® was appropriate is subject to interpretation by my row mates.

Of course, there’s something absolutely thrilling about it all, whether or not you get called down—which by now you should realize I did not. The fact that there is actual vicarious delight in watching a stranger win a new fridge playing Cliff Hanger, and such brand allegiance that the crowd will cheer at the mere mention of their hometown supermarket chain, is one of the brilliant lunacies of the consumer economy. But when Jim from Green Island won a trip to Las Vegas for his elderly wife, who’d never left the state, things got dystopian. “It’s for moments like these that I became a game show host,” Newton pandered. And so you applaud Jim as a producer with a headset leads him offstage. You applaud his work-a-day life, his faithful marriage and his deserved stroke of luck. In fact, it’s the only thing that tempers the feeling that you’ve been eating cereal on the couch all morning when you exit the theater.

“The only thing more powerful than fear is hope,” goes the line in The Hunger Games. “Not too much hope . . . just enough hope to make them think that things could be better.”