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The Late Great Era of the Game Show

Eric J. Plosky

Why are episodes from the 1983 season of "Wheel of Fortune" so much more fun to watch than first-run episodes?

Because of the width of Pat Sajak's lapels and the color of his vests (yes, vests) and the similarly hilarious apparel and Loni Anderson hairdos of Vanna White and the contestants.

It's a trip to watch old television game shows, as I discovered while parked on my couch at home during winter break. Somehow I clicked my way to Channel 83, the Game Show Network, which runs decades-old episodes of such crusty classics as "The Match Game," "To Tell the Truth," "What's My Line?" "The $25,000 Pyramid," and "Card Sharks."

At first, I derided the concept of a network devoted strictly to reruns of obsolete game shows. But, to my amazement, these shows are genuinely entertaining not as standard TV fare, but as a novel sociological window on American culture.

Want to take the game-show approach to learning about American culture? There's an easy method. First, on a weekday morning at 11:00 a.m., watch "The Price is Right" on CBS, hosted by the ancient and increasingly frail Bob Barker.

Barker, astonishingly, has been on the show for all of its 26 seasons. That's right, "TPIR" premiered in 1972. It's the only survivor of the game show era; the losers, from "Blockbusters" to "Family Feud," ended up on the Game Show Network.

The sets and schtick of "TPIR" haven't changed in 26 years; in addition to Barker, one of the models has stuck with the show for its entire run. But looking at other current game shows, like "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" (both in syndication), you can observe another phenomenon the game show that changes with the times. "Wheel" has long since dispensed with the rotating blocks; Vanna now pushes illuminated buttons to reveal letters. And the question board on "Jeopardy!" has metamorphosed over the years into various glaring, flashing incarnations meant to communicate the show's awareness of changing fashions.

Once you're familiar with modern offerings (disregard such garbage as the new "Dating Game," despite the presence of game-show oracle Chuck Woolery), check out the Game Show Network. If you're in for the full experience, you can shoot all the way back to the 1950s with shows like the original "To Tell the Truth." I recommend concentrating on the game-show-rich 1970s the scenery, wardrobe, dialogue and mannerisms are all guaranteed to satisfy.

The contestants' banter is unrehearsed. These people, despite going through the networks' selection process, appear utterly unprepared for national television exposure. So much the better, and funnier! For instance, it is impossible to imagine Gene Rayburn, host of "The Match Game," as host of a modern game show. His W. C. Fields impressions are frequent and pathetic. Richard Dawson on "Family Feud," though apparently suave for his time, is slimy by 1990s standards; he talked down to and kissed all the female contestants. Only Dick Clark, of "The $25,000 Pyramid," is as I remembered him, interchangeable (except for clothes) with the Clark who reports from Times Square each New Year's Eve.

Many shows feature celebrities; some feature only celebrities, and one wonders what the point is. I saw Alan Alda, panelist on a 197x episode of "To Tell the Truth," win a plastic shopping cart with his name imprinted on it. Why? On "Tattletales," celebrities play a sort of "Newlywed Game," but don't seem to win anything. The concept of featuring working-person contestants seems to have been resurrected from its 1950s ashes only after a considerable amount of celebrity dabbling.

Maybe networks were keen to keep regular people off their shows because most regular people are idiots.

This was nicely illustrated by an episode of "Blockbusters" I saw, in which the contestant was asked, "Which sodium-chloride compound sits on your table?" and was also told that the answer started with "S."

"Pass," said the befuddled contestant.

Later 1980s games, like "Scrabble," "Card Sharks," and "Body Language," begin to get a little bit ridiculous, and one wonders why or how any of those shows were on in the first place. Is it really entertaining to see Jamie Farr or Vicki Lawrence trying to walk like John Wayne? In a word, notsomuch. Even the hosts begin to look uninterested by the 80s; it takes a new breed, led by such stars as Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak, to restore vitality to the industry.

The game show is largely gone today, replaced to some extent by so-called "reality TV" featuring real-life cop-and-robber chases. Maybe in twenty years future sociologists will glean as much information from Fox's "COPS" and "Worst High-Speed Wrecks VII" as I have from watching bell-bottomed, polyester-clad yuppies trying their luck on the Game Show Network.