Game Show Heaven / Game Show Hell

The latest television triumph, according to ratings and critics alike, was ABC’s four-part Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time contest in January, which attracted fourteen and then fifteen million people, just beyond the Golden Globes Awards and Monday Night Football. James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter won over countless fans with their good sportsmanship and genuine camaraderie, not to mention their erudition and love of learning.

It was especially moving to witness their palpable affection and regard for game show host Alex Trebek, who is battling pancreatic cancer, and who is very much in the prayers of the program’s viewers. Trebek is obviously educated and cultured and familiar with references and quotations and expressions from other languages.  

Courtesy ABC Domestic Television

Indeed, the four episodes showcased more good sportsmanship than is seen in most professional sports today and contained more true collegiality than is found in many university faculties or, for that matter, among the students. The contestants are unabashedly self-proclaimed “nerds” in the best sense -- enjoying knowledge, retaining facts and terminologies and regarding the details of learning as worthy of commitment to memory.

There should be a televised discussion some time about how these gentlemen learn and memorize. I trust that they could offer method as well as motivation to teachers and learners alike. Certainly, their civility and gentle but witty humor could be a model for politicians and academics alike.

Around the same time, Ellen DeGeneris’s program, Ellen’s Game of Games returned to the air -- shockingly, in my opinion -- for a third season on NBC. In 2017, I was so appalled by the opening shows that I jotted down at the time some of the “highlights”: a man obviously distressed to see his wife dumped in some chocolate liquid; Ellen pushing a button, causing a woman to fall downward, and commenting that this woman will now “know what it is like to be Santa going down the chimney.” (The show premiered before Christmas that year.)  Even the “winners” had to fall through a trap door.

I couldn’t help thinking that it is dangerous to have people hoisted and suspended to such heights during this sadistic and masochistic fare. In one “game,” people were stumbling around blindfolded on a high platform. The audience found it funny that one guy almost fell off. 

A couple of years back, I jotted down some concerns: What are the dangers of injury or disability  in such “competition?” I had hoped that, at the very least, safety experts would have been called in.

But then I wrote other reviews that seemed more urgent and I did not think of Ellen’s Game of Games until all the hype over Jeopardy! in eraly. While meditating on the latest Jeopardy! phenomenon, I thought of the DeGeneris show again and discovered that new episodes were being broadcast at that very moment.

I just finished making a point of seeing one of the latest Ellen brand game shows, from January 2020, and, I’m ashamed to say, not much has changed -- ashamed because I didn’t publish my gut reactions when I first had them and ashamed that the same scenario continues. I’m grateful that no one has been hurt yet on that show, at least to my knowledge.

The episode I just saw, the fifth of the new season, was allotted to sets of twins. In the first segment, “Danger Word,” there was a winning word and a danger word, like “surgeon” and “doctor,” respectively. Ellen paintballed whichever twin said the danger word, or hesitated too long to answer, or gave an illegal clue, or lost to the other team. One contestant seemed overcome by the paint a couple of times, spitting and wheezing.    

In another game, carried over from the debut episodes, teams bet on how many kinds of ice cream, cosmetics or other categories the at risk partner could name; the loser was lowered down and dunked into pea soup. The dunking process was repeatedly savored by the camera in slow motion.

At the end of the show all the contestants, including the winner, were dropped through a trap door. The “losers” were punished for not being able to answer questions such as the name of the owl in the Harry Potter series. Hardly a reason to cast a human being down. But how justify such treatment of the “winner”?

I must say that compared to Ellen’s Game of Games, the other game shows come across as rational and sane. By in large, the other game shows are reasonable. Wheel of Fortune requires talent at word games, even if casino luck is required. The various “match games” demand some thought and strategy, even if one is expected to read the minds of polled masses whose values may be very different and at times not admirable. At least, on The Price is Right, one must be familiar with the current cost and value of things.

True, Jeopardy! is by no means perfect. It fosters a gambler’s culture. One of its all-time winners is, after all, a professional gambler. But it also suggests at every moment that knowledge has value for its own sake, despite the outrageous fortunes of life -- and of game shows. It has redeeming qualities, though it glorifies risk, often outrageous risk. But, unlike Ellen’s Game of Games, it does not demand physical risk, goggles and other restraints notwithstanding (or is it, withstanding?).  

So far, Ellen’s Game of Games is the “regular” or “normative” prime time game show. Can’t television as an industry, can’t we as a society, do better?   

The latest television triumph, according to ratings and critics alike, was ABC’s four-part Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time contest in January, which attracted fourteen and then fifteen million people, just beyond the Golden Globes Awards and Monday Night Football. James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter won over countless fans with their good sportsmanship and genuine camaraderie, not to mention their erudition and love of learning.

It was especially moving to witness their palpable affection and regard for game show host Alex Trebek, who is battling pancreatic cancer, and who is very much in the prayers of the program’s viewers. Trebek is obviously educated and cultured and familiar with references and quotations and expressions from other languages.  

Courtesy ABC Domestic Television

Indeed, the four episodes showcased more good sportsmanship than is seen in most professional sports today and contained more true collegiality than is found in many university faculties or, for that matter, among the students. The contestants are unabashedly self-proclaimed “nerds” in the best sense -- enjoying knowledge, retaining facts and terminologies and regarding the details of learning as worthy of commitment to memory.

There should be a televised discussion some time about how these gentlemen learn and memorize. I trust that they could offer method as well as motivation to teachers and learners alike. Certainly, their civility and gentle but witty humor could be a model for politicians and academics alike.

Around the same time, Ellen DeGeneris’s program, Ellen’s Game of Games returned to the air -- shockingly, in my opinion -- for a third season on NBC. In 2017, I was so appalled by the opening shows that I jotted down at the time some of the “highlights”: a man obviously distressed to see his wife dumped in some chocolate liquid; Ellen pushing a button, causing a woman to fall downward, and commenting that this woman will now “know what it is like to be Santa going down the chimney.” (The show premiered before Christmas that year.)  Even the “winners” had to fall through a trap door.

I couldn’t help thinking that it is dangerous to have people hoisted and suspended to such heights during this sadistic and masochistic fare. In one “game,” people were stumbling around blindfolded on a high platform. The audience found it funny that one guy almost fell off. 

A couple of years back, I jotted down some concerns: What are the dangers of injury or disability  in such “competition?” I had hoped that, at the very least, safety experts would have been called in.

But then I wrote other reviews that seemed more urgent and I did not think of Ellen’s Game of Games until all the hype over Jeopardy! in eraly. While meditating on the latest Jeopardy! phenomenon, I thought of the DeGeneris show again and discovered that new episodes were being broadcast at that very moment.

I just finished making a point of seeing one of the latest Ellen brand game shows, from January 2020, and, I’m ashamed to say, not much has changed -- ashamed because I didn’t publish my gut reactions when I first had them and ashamed that the same scenario continues. I’m grateful that no one has been hurt yet on that show, at least to my knowledge.

The episode I just saw, the fifth of the new season, was allotted to sets of twins. In the first segment, “Danger Word,” there was a winning word and a danger word, like “surgeon” and “doctor,” respectively. Ellen paintballed whichever twin said the danger word, or hesitated too long to answer, or gave an illegal clue, or lost to the other team. One contestant seemed overcome by the paint a couple of times, spitting and wheezing.    

In another game, carried over from the debut episodes, teams bet on how many kinds of ice cream, cosmetics or other categories the at risk partner could name; the loser was lowered down and dunked into pea soup. The dunking process was repeatedly savored by the camera in slow motion.

At the end of the show all the contestants, including the winner, were dropped through a trap door. The “losers” were punished for not being able to answer questions such as the name of the owl in the Harry Potter series. Hardly a reason to cast a human being down. But how justify such treatment of the “winner”?

I must say that compared to Ellen’s Game of Games, the other game shows come across as rational and sane. By in large, the other game shows are reasonable. Wheel of Fortune requires talent at word games, even if casino luck is required. The various “match games” demand some thought and strategy, even if one is expected to read the minds of polled masses whose values may be very different and at times not admirable. At least, on The Price is Right, one must be familiar with the current cost and value of things.

True, Jeopardy! is by no means perfect. It fosters a gambler’s culture. One of its all-time winners is, after all, a professional gambler. But it also suggests at every moment that knowledge has value for its own sake, despite the outrageous fortunes of life -- and of game shows. It has redeeming qualities, though it glorifies risk, often outrageous risk. But, unlike Ellen’s Game of Games, it does not demand physical risk, goggles and other restraints notwithstanding (or is it, withstanding?).  

So far, Ellen’s Game of Games is the “regular” or “normative” prime time game show. Can’t television as an industry, can’t we as a society, do better?