Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wheel! Of! Fortune!

I'm a fan.

I call it "The Wheel" in a half-ironic sort of way when I ask, "Hey, Heather. Is The Wheel on?"  It's a lot like how I half-ironically call the TV shows Heather and I enjoy (The Daily Show, Mad Men, King of the Hill) "our stories" in a doofy southern accent that is supposed to suggest some kind of middle-to-low-brow addiction to soap operas, or something.  It sounds kind of dick-ish, I know, but it's probably just a way of acknowledging the fact that I really enjoy this despicably low medium of entertainment in a way that keeps me somehow "above" it.  I enjoy it a lot.  It's not really a question when I ask if The Wheel or one of our stories is coming on.  It is me knowing that one of our stories is in fact coming on, and we should turn on the tube or change the channel to not miss it.

And lately I'm fascinated by The Wheel.  So I was intrigued by Willa Paskin's article, titled, "Wheel of Fortune's Fantasy."  After noting how weirdly frozen in time the general aesthetic of the show--with regard to both the staging and the look and behavior of the two iconic hosts--seems to be, and after she observes that, during the Pat Sajak-contestants banter segment of each show, "Sajak rarely asks the contestants what they would like to do with the money if they win," Paskin lays out some groundwork for her upcoming argument:
"This undercurrent — that money and what it can do for you is only minimally interesting — is accentuated when the titular, analog wheel, in all its click-click-clicking glory, finally comes into play. At this stage of the game, three things become clear. First, it is extremely easy to win money on “Wheel of Fortune.” Second, it is extremely easy to lose money on “Wheel of Fortune.” Third, losing money of “Wheel of Fortune” seems to be a fairly pleasant activity."
I like Paskin's "click-click-clicking glory" description of the wheel.  I just suggested to Heather this morning that someone should make a cellphone ringtone that is the boop-boop-boop sound of the wheel from The Price is Right.  And I think she's right that The Wheel does tend to downplay the fact that some contestants are winning and losing life-changing amounts of money.

But here's where she goes, I think, a bit too far:
"Staying calm when losing $10,000 of game show money you just made is very sensible, and it must soften the blow that everyone who plays on “Wheel” walks away with at least $1,000, and usually much more than that. But humans’ ability to count their chickens before they hatch is so common that there’s a cliché to describe it, and on shows like “Jeopardy,” “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” or even “The Price is Right,” there is some wincing when a contestant loses a bundle. Watching “Wheel” you would think we were a nation of good losers."
First of all, it's The Wheel, thankyouverymuch.  But, more importantly, I could just as easily say that The Wheel is exceptional in that its host tends not to tease financial sob stories and/or plans out of the contestants (which I'm actually not really sure is entirely accurate, anyway (I'm sure Pat Sajak at least occasionally asks questions about what the contestants might do with their winnings)).  In other game shows--like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Minute to Win It or the one with Howie Mandel and the briefcases--the tendency to focus too much on the home-lives of the contestants takes time away from the game at hand.  At the furthest end of this spectrum we might find a program like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which, while not a game show, does focus on the financial problems of the families whose houses are being renovated (or just demolished and replaced).  But after the house is built, the college tuitions are handled, and the new cars are doled out, the question that doesn't get asked is:  How are you going to pay to keep up with all this stuff?

I would rather the contestants remain mysteries to me.  I understand that their appearances on these shows will be monumental moments in their lives whether they win or lose.  I think most people watching at home probably understand that.  So let's keep the action in the moment.  Let's not draw out this huge biographical narrative and situate this moment just so to hammer home its significance.  I think the broadly sketched caricatures of these contestants we viewers can create by looking at them and hearing them tell what they think is an important anecdote in the chit-chat-with-Pat segment of the show is enough.

Near the end of her article, Paskin writes:
"If there is something a little dark in “Wheel’s” casualness about money — a TV-ready version of the slot-machine players, lottery-ticket buyers and real-estate flippers amongst us — “Wheel” is also about comfort. Here is a universe in which playing with cash is a harmless game, not a world-economy destabilizing one. Here is a set where the ‘80s never ended, women barely age, and people are healthy, happy and well-mannered. Here is a place where no one really needs the money, the most anachronistic thing of all."
She's getting at something here when she writes (in that appositive that is somehow not doing its syntactic job) about "the slot-machine players."  I am certain that this is the target audience for the show.  The seizure-inducing sparkliness of everything, the strange scenic (often tropical) footage that plays on the big screen behind the contestants, the fast-paced wheel-spinning, the ups-and-downs in the contestants' totals that represent monetary winnings--it's all suggestive of slot-machine gambling.  Like any other thing on TV, The Wheel is marketed toward a demographic.  So, when Paskin writes that "[w]atching “Wheel” you would think we were a nation of good losers," that's only true if you're only watching The Wheel.  And the same would be true of any TV show.  Watching Cheers you would think we were a nation of high-functioning alcoholics.  Watching Breaking Bad you would think we were a nation of meth-dealers/meth-heads/meth-head-sympathizers.

All of this points to a problem I have.  I understand that we shouldn't look at these cultural artifacts (er, TV shows) as mirrors that reflect the values of the societies that created them.  That ignores the fact that these shows are carefully tailored for and marketed to a segment of the population.  To some extent they work to assemble what we think of as society.  So I don't like arguments that suggest that, I dunno, Super Bowl ads reveal our deepest desires and hang-ups.  That doesn't seem right.  It gives television too much credit/agency while giving people too little credit/agency.  So my problem is with the credit/agency ratio.  I don't know what it is/what it should be.

One last thing.  Paskin's argument that contestants don't seem to get upset when they lose money shows that she didn't see this episode:

The clip doesn't show that after the commercial break the contestant who pronounced "picturesque" wrong had clearly been crying, and Pat Sajak does what he can to console her.  Do I need to know anything about this woman's financial standing to understand how this moment will live in her memory?

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