Andrew Lindemann Malone's Internet Playpen
Movie Reviews

The Price Is So Right

If more people watched and appreciated "The Price is Right," our economy would improve over both the short and long term as consumers became more adept at maximizing their utility. But CBS has to do its part to help save us from our ignorance.

This may not be immediately obvious when watching the actual show, which seems to take its primary entertainment value from the ageless Bob "Carnival" Barker, the disembodied, stentorian tones of announcer Rod Roddy, a studio audience so enthusiastic as to strain credulity, classic gratuitous T&A in the form of "Barker's Beauties," and the finest crafts department in any game show ever. Certainly the other people in the exercise room at the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service facility in Riverdale, MD do not share my deeper appreciation of the show's value, constantly asking me whether I "am watching that" in an effort to turn the channel to CNN without stirring up resentment, or just switching it off in the conviction that nobody could possibly be watching that.

Not that I do not understand their impulse: "The Price is Right" is definitely a relic of an earlier time, and it's definitely more frivolous than watching talking heads bloviate about the white guy in a white van who was thought to be terrorizing my metropolitan area recently. For me, most of the time, this is all to the good. I never cease to be amazed at the ingenious feats accomplished by that canny, amazingly productive crafts department. "The Price is Right" has to be the only game show in which six different games are played per day, five days a week, which makes it all the more astonishing that the movable game setups and boards are always bright and bold and inviting in a style seemingly preserved in amber from the show's inception. And they never, ever break. Of course, it's a lot easier to grease a wheel than debug code, but their economy of technological means just speaks to their continued genius.

And despite the recent sexual-harassment troubles, the fact that Barker's Beauties dress demurely (one-piece swimsuits only, please, and then only when showcasing boats or beachfront vacations) is both rare and welcome in today's gratingly hypersexualized television universe. Barker is still enjoying himself after all these years, even as he has to contend with grabby contestants who didn't grow up with the same standards of decorum he learned and timeslot competitors who don't understand that there is more dignity in borderline huckstering than rooting around in human filth and frailty, even from behind a gavel.

But the essential talent celebrated by "The Price Is Right" is not academic accomplishment and ingenuity, as in shows like "Jeopardy!" or (in a ultradiluted form) "Wheel of Fortune," or knowledge of self and those around self, like in "Family Feud" or "The $64,000 Question," or even the divination of mathematical odds as famously depicted on "Let's Make a Deal." No, "The Price is Right" celebrates knowing how much things cost: big-ticket items like cars, but also grocery-receipt items like cleaning liquid, dietary supplements and Pop-Tarts.

This is traditionally thought to be a 1950s kind of knowledge, a type of knowledge we no longer have the time to acquire in today's accelerated world. We all work and take care of dependents and a domicile, and we don't have time to register the knowledge that a can of Barbasol costs $1.29 so you should guess that it costs less than the vitamins next to it, which will get you another guess at the price of the Ford Focus up for grabs to the lucky, price-savvy contestant. We just pick up what we need and pop it in the cart and scan the Visa and assess the damage once a month. To some extent, given the burdens we carry, we consider it our privilege to do this.

And doing this is part of what has driven us to spend, currently, more than we're taking in, and run up record levels of consumer debt. We're not encouraged to know what we're spending, which would allow us to minimize that amount; we're encouraged to spend, so that the consumer-side demand that currently is dragging our economy along doesn't slacken. But debts come due, and if they amount to more than we've got, we're not going to be doing much for the consumer-side demand anymore. And everyone knows that the most painful death is the death of small cuts, the bank account that falls a thousand times a dollar at a time as consumers don't notice bargains or ripoffs in Aisle 6 and buy indiscriminately.

In this economy, knowing how much things cost should be thought of as neither a relic of a more leisurely past or as the province of joyless penny-pinchers. This knowledge should be hailed as one of the key skills necessary to lead a maximally enjoyable life. Those who have it should be celebrated and emulated.

Where else does America feel comfortable celebrating knowledge but in an artificial setting where the rewards of that knowledge are multiplied by amazing factors in the transition to TV drama? We hailed quiz-show champions in the 1950s, and pop-culture literacy had its day (for good or ill) when "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" had its. Why not a comeback for "The Price is Right" now?

Well, that aesthetic, as much as I enjoy it, tends to fix the knowledge of how much things cost as something long since abandoned in favor of encyclopedic knowledge of Julia Roberts' costars and such. That aesthetic places "The Price Is Right" in the realm of cult favorite and golden oldie at once, as college students and church groups alike make pilgrimages to sit in the audience. The dazzling garishness, the sincere glee, that ineradicable theme song, the Plinko board... When I started this essay, I had intended to call for a wholesale modernization, but it's too much, too good to give up.

So why not that most modern and lazy of solutions: a spinoff? "The New Price Is Right." You could put it in prime time, give it a post-ironic chubby white guy host, decorate the set in tasteful blues and blacks, have the new Beauties dressed in bikini tops and hot pants, whatever you want. Just make sure that the point is that the price has to be right. Put knowledge of how much a midrange coffee maker costs on the same level as knowledge of which company uses which slogan. Get Americans thinking about their supermarket receipts. And encourage all of us to demand the right prices next time we go shopping. Or, at least, give me something today's modern consumers won't assume that no one could be watching.


All this tasty writing ©2002-11 by Andrew Lindemann Malone. All rights reserved.