Saturday, June 15, 2019

"GOOD ON TV?": They've been around forever, but maybe that means we should reevaluate them. What are "JEOPARDY!" and "WHEEL OF FORTUNE"?

I've talked about my love and fascination with game shows several times before here; 

I think it’s a truly great and undervalued TV genre. Just when we think we’ve gotten enough of them, there’s usually something new and unique that brings us back to them. Like any other genre, there’s good and bad and yes some bad game shows just truly be awful; you should seek out and their Youtube page to really see the horrors of some of these, but I certainly don’t understand people who don’t like game shows the most, more than any other genre. What’s there to hate, usually. It’s just a game, let’s play. They have their ups and downs and sometimes game shows are more popular, sometimes it seems like they’re almost a dead genre, but they always seem to stick around somehow, and the two that have stuck around the longest are “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune”. 

Okay, “The Price is Right” has actually stuck around longer, but anybody my age understands that the two big game shows are “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune”. They’re the most-watch syndicated shows around, they’re still popular after 35+ years, they’ve spun off into hugely successful popular versions all over the world, both were/are created by the same person, Mr. Merv Griffin and both are usually distributed by the same groups and companies, and they’re almost always paired together on television stations, usually somewhere after the six o’clock news and before the Primetime lineups start. Hell, one year, they actually tied at the Daytime Emmys for Best Game Show. That was hilarious. 

And these two current versions in their modern forms have been around all my life and are still present even today. They did exist in original versions earlier, but I know the day will come when Alex Trebek, and Pat & Vanna won’t be around, and I hope the series will survive that day, but maybe not. I hope so, especially since, these are two television shows that I would absolutely love to get a job as a writer on some day. (Being a game show writer under the best of circumstances, has to be a pretty cool and underrated job. Under the BEST of CIRCUMSTANCES at least. [Yeah, I’m looking at you, “Temptation”!])

Now, as a game show lover, and I still am, I always keep that BUZZR channel in regular rotation, I used to watch "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" pretty religiously every day. In fact, in 1st Grade, I dressed as Alex Trebek for Halloween. True story. A lot of that was my Grandmother's love of them, but I loved watching them with and I stuck with the shows after her passing. 

That said, I have essentially, grown apart from them. I don’t watch them all the time like I really should, especially since I do take the “Jeopardy!” online test fairly regularly. A lot that’s just, growing up and looking for evolution and other things to watch and study, “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune”, like most game shows, they haven’t changed all that much over the years. (Well, I mean, I'll talk about a lot of the changes, but still, essentially they're the same game and the same show.) Still though, they've been on so long that perhaps it's time to give them a real evaluation. 

I certainly will seek them out when I do hear about something that happens on them. Recently, I’ve been watching “Jeopardy!” much more lately. There’s several reasons for that, and I’ll get into a few in a minute, but honestly, I usually don’t even bother with “Wheel of Fortune” anymore. I don’t know when exactly-, I guess I started getting a bit turned off when Pat Sajak was suddenly getting more political. I mean, it’s subtle, but yeah, it got noticeable. Of course, most game shows hosts have traditional been a bit more conservative, despite some moderate efforts recently to switch that up considerably, so that really doesn’t bother me that much. That said, the few times I’ve tried watching “Wheel of Fortune,” recently…, I hate to say it, but they’ve gotten a little unwatchable. 

There’s a few reasons for this, for instance that really dumb Crossword Puzzle category, where the words are both horizontal and vertical across the board and the clue is like, _____ Something and all the words pair with the Something. They use that puzzle almost every show now, and I hate it. Just bring back Megaword if you’re gonna do something gimmicky like that.

Actually, the show is just a bunch of gimmicks now. There’s the prize puzzle, there’s the jackpot round, the 1/2 cars on the wheel, there’s the continuously guess letters thing, there’s the wheel of like fifty prizes, there’s the ridiculously difficult $1Million Dollar Prize that you need to win…- I remember when everybody when like amaze at the Free Spin option. We were all like, “WHAT!?!?” They get to go again, despite Bankrupting! Also, the Buzz-In Puzzles for everything. I’ve been to a “Wheel of Fortune” taping, I know how long it takes for the show to stop so they can load a puzzle into that board, it must take for fucking ever to shoot an episode now that every little thing begins with a Buzz-In Puzzle. Also, there’s something else they did, that in hindsight, I think was a gigantic mistake: they got rid of the Returning Champion. 

The ideas of the returning champions for "Wheel of Fortune" had always been sporadic although they got rid of them entirely by 1998. Sure, “Wheel of Fortune” is more of a luck-based game show than “Jeopardy!” or most other shows, but I can remember some memorable “Wheel…” champions from my youth, and taking that away gives you much less of a reason to keep watching, and “Jeopardy!” has definitely been the greatest example of how amazingly compelling Returning Champions are, but we’ll get to that.

As to “Jeopardy!”, it’s changed considerably as well, I must say, but not in any ways that hinder the show’s appeal the way “Wheel of Fortune” has in recent year. I kinda do wish that they might go back to more straight-forwards categories like they used to and not be so clever with some of them, but I can accept that, cause something like "VWLSS BBL GSPLS" does make you think more obscurely and not simply just allow one to recall memorized facts. And besides, the whole premise of the series was how it subverted the traps of the quiz show format to begin with by giving us, the answer, and then having us come up with the question, so yeah, why not. The money’s gone up on that show too over the years. They’ve had an occasional gimmick and sometimes a failed category experiment as well, but most of the time, the only real twist or anything is, there might be a tournament of a certain group of people or some other thing where basically it’s other people just playing “Jeopardy!” and testing their knowledge and skills at a very difficult game.

The old joke used to be that you’d watch “Jeopardy!” to make you feel stupid, and then watch “Wheel of Fortune” to make you feel smart. As much I love the sense of schadenfreude you get when somebody on “Wheel…” is clearly the last person around who hasn’t solved the puzzle, I can’t say that’s entirely accurate. At least, for me. I was always felt smarter watching “Jeopardy!” Hell, I usually learned something. I don’t remember the first puzzle I solved on “Wheel…”, but I damn sure remember the first time I got a “Jeopardy!” answer right before anyone else on TV or in my house did. Nowadays, I generally know I would’ve at least known ¾ of the answers and at least get 20 of them right when I play with my nearest clicky-top pen. It’s fun solving a puzzle too, and sometimes when somebody does manage to solve it so fast it makes your head spin, I’ll seek that out on Youtube or something, but I’m definitely not tuning in to find that rare puzzle solve anymore.

Especially with the no Returning Champions thing, “Wheel of Fortune” feels empty to me. They can go have the show in some other city or have as many special themed weeks that they want, but none of it feels special anymore. I often find myself just watching to see, like the details on the edge of the screen these days. Mostly having to do with trying to figure out Vanna’s age based on how many years she’s been doing this puzzle thing, or how much less she claps during spins then she used to. (Seriously, that used to be her thing; she was in the Guiness World Records for clapping her hands the most on TV, but you watch the show now and she’s barely clapping at all.) I’ll still solve a puzzle or two, but it’s not the same. Especially considering how half the puzzle are buzzer puzzles I feel like I’m getting cheated out of the game.  The show needs to get back to its roots. I mean, I’m not saying go back to ceramic dalmatian or anything, but it really needs to be much more game and a lot less show, ‘cause honestly, and I hate to be this bean, but I’d legitimately would much rather find a friend and a pen & paper and just play Hangman with them than watch “Wheel of Fortune” right now. Sorry. I'd still say to watch it everyday if you have a young kid, they need exposure to letters but, yeah, it's not as endearing as I feel it used to be. 

“Jeopardy!”, however, I keep finding new reasons to go back and watch it myself. They do try weird experimental things occasionally. During the summer, they tried a team format for the first time, complete with past legendary “Jeopardy!” champions having a fantasy draft of other Champions, and teams incorporating strategy for when they’d play what rounds. It even including “Jeopardy!” legends Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings renewing their rivalry as to of the great Champions.
Shortly after that fun little experiment ended, Alex Trebek announced that he had stage 4 stomach cancer. Trebek is over eighty years old, he’s basically been around in some capacity since the beginning of television; he’s become one of the greatest of pop culture fixtures and on top of that, he’s just one of the greatest game show hosts of all-time. “Jeopardy!” is his baby, but I might argue that his best hosting gig was in the ‘70s when he hosted “High Rollers”. Seriously, if you can find an episode or two of that, it’s surreal how different he can be hosting that show. Or, I’ve been rewatching “Classic Concentration”, lately, he was great with that; he’s great with every show he’s hosted. (That game is way-the-fuck harder than “Jeopardy!”. Don’t let anybody B.S you into thinking that “Jeopardy!” is the most difficult game show, it’s just answers and question, “Classic Concentration” involves trying to solve a rebus that you can’t see and half the time you couldn’t solve it even if you did! People who use emojis should be tied up and force to marathon “Classic Concentration” as punishment.) This honestly depressed me for a bit, and several others knowing that there is going to be an ultimate end to the show. I made it a point to watch more “Jeopardy!” if it happened to be on a little bit more often. Obviously, I didn’t continue every time, and I really wouldn’t want to think about that being the last reason to watch “Jeopardy!”. I secretly know that this would be the end of “Jeopardy!” as we know it. We know Alex’s health is limited, and they had just done that ultimate champions team; they’d basically done everything you can think of. They even had a computer play on the show. There really much left for the show without the series falling into its own whole the way “Wheel…” basically has over the decades. It might always be around, but I can’t imagine any scenario anytime soon where “Jeopardy!” would suddenly come back into my more typical vision of thought, outside of that inevitable day where we’d one day have to figure out who would indeed go and replace Alex Trebek as host, and I certainly wasn’t looking forward to that at all.
And then, a curious thing happened…

(A Few weeks ago)

Goddamnit Phillies! Can you hold one fucking lead- What the-! Wait, why’s “Jeopardy!” showing up on’s newsfeed?

(Clicks link)

HOW MUCH!?!?!?!?!

Just when I thought I’d seen it all…. Now, “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” did use to both have returning Champions, “Jeopardy!’ would have a five-day limit while “Wheel…” would have a three-day limit, before they switched first to a weekly tournament structure that culminated in a Friday game with the Top Three players competing before they finally just gave up on returning champions altogether. “Jeopardy!”, when they shifted to a larger dollar amounts, eventually went the opposite direction and got rid of the retiring champion entirely and let people remain on the show until they lost. They did have Tournaments of Champions regularly for the five-time winners yearly and still do, but it was always one of the great mysteries of “Jeopardy!”, just how long some of those older contestants would’ve lasted on the show if they could’ve kept going. Frank Spangleburger’s five-day record seemed to remain forever, until they increased the dollar amount and then it got broken in three days. Of course, Ken Jennings’s 75-day record is the biggest and most influential streak as he still holds basically every all-time game show record you can think of now. Jennings though, was mostly just a great “Jeopardy!” player, a guy who was quick on the buzzer and had incredible knowledge recall and deciphering skills; one of his more unique figures was how he often risked ringing in before being entirely sure of the answer, but knowing he had the time to think of it before ringing in.

Holzhauer is different. I’ve seen people break a game show before, like Michael Larson figuring out the “Press Your Luck” game board patterns but “Jeopardy!” being broken was just unfathomable! He came as close as anybody ever has, and he’s certainly changed the game forever. He did in half the time what took Ken Jennings over two months to do. Jennings single-game record of $77,000 in an episode, was demolished over ten times over by James Holzhauer. The numbers are just staggering when you look at them, like how Babe Ruth hit more home runs than any other team when he hit 54 in 1926, and then you remember he hit 60 the next year; like that shouldn’t happen in regular sports, much less for a game show that’s been around for 35 years, not including the original Art Fleming years. And yet, here it was happening. And even when you realize what he’s doing, to figure out how he’s doing it, you still gotta sit back and realize that, “Yeah, but he still has to know all the answers. He still has to ring in fastest!” I’m not at all surprised he’s a professional sports bettor in Vegas, he’s a professional strategist, who understands the importance of game theory and he figured the strategy aspects of the game and just demoralized and destroyed his opponents. He did break the game enough that they’re going to have to eventually re-evaluate certain parts of the game, goodbye to everybody starting with the least dollar amounts, gotta adjust the questions for that. Those Daily Double are gonna become doubly-valuable than they ever were before. Can you imagine how demoralizing it must be, to be playing pretty damn well at the game as several of his opponents were against him, even adjusting to his strategy only for him to get the crucial Daily Double and then for the opponents to look up at the board and see nothing but $400 or $800 questions left and knowing that even  if they managed to get every one of those answers, that it’d still basically be impossible for them to win the game unless James Holzhauer suddenly turned into Cliff Clavin, which was not gonna happen!? There’s a beauty in the destruction that he's thrusted on people the show. It was fascinating to watch. 

Sure made “Jeopardy!” more fascinating now than ever.

Also, apparently Alex Trebek’s Cancer treatments are doing incredibly well and he’s making an amazing recovery. Perhaps that’s a coincidence, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the game now has a new wrinkle in it that’s going to effect it for years. The quiz game that becomes more strategic than previously planned, that’s put a whole new light on the game. Made the simple question and answers game more fascinating than ever. Maybe it’s the last major shift in the show but it might be the best.

It’s truly amazing just how simple it is, thirty-five+ years and it’s just answers and questions. “Wheel of Fortune”’s just solving word puzzles, this isn’t amazingly grandiose or unique or anything. Even great game shows usually have fairly limited runs and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten myself caught up in the next great game show only to find it fluttering into irrelevancy or cancelation. I mean, look at how many different runs “Family Feud”’s had-, I wasn’t even alive for the Richard Dawson original version, and I’ve still lived through, depending on how you count, at least two runs of the series and like, eh, Combs, Dawson, Anderson, Karn, O’Hurley, eh, like five or six hosts and each hose has their own distinct variations and distinction from each other outside of the hosts. (And I know I’m in the minority on this, but I can’t stand this Steve Harvey era. He’s not a terrible host although in “… Feud”’s history he’s probably fourth or fifth in my book, but the whole show is now just trying to make him shocked and amazed at the answers and I’ve just grown tired of that conceit. I think him and Alec Baldwin should change gigs for a week, have Harvey host “Match Game” and Baldwin host “Family Feud”, I bet that would be interesting.) And that’s just one show. 

At different times, the hot game show on TV has been "Supermarket Sweet", "Debt", "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", the "Twenty-One" revival for like two months, "Are You Smarter than a 5th Graged", 'Street Smarts", 'Ca$h Cab",  the new “Match Game”, “Celebrity Name Game”… there’s many others that have been the cool new it game show- hell, I’m not even counting reality-competition shows, which some might and that would make this list 2X longer. Still, I’ve gone through them all and I love this new era of game show revival that’s being pushed along by ABC, but you what has never needed a revival? “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune”; they’ve just always been there. (Alright “The Price is Right” has been there too, but, ehh, I’ve expressed my critiques of that show already. Link below: )

All this time, and they’re still around. They come and go in waves in terms of importance and pop culture relevance and popularity, but they’re always around and they’re still here, as strong as ever. Look at the ratings if you don’t believe that, their only competition in syndication are "Judge Judy", "Family Feud" and maybe if a show like "The Big Bang Theory" hits huge in reruns, they'll get competition, and they’ll thrive past that too, and worldwide, their reach is particular undeniable. I’m clearly more in the “Jeopardy!” camp, but I can easily understand why “Wheel…” is still dominant too. Even original versions of these shows didn’t survive longer than eleven years! And I'm damn sure grateful. Hell, I learned my alphabet by watching “Wheel of Fortune” and I doubt I’m the only one. They’re institutions the world over. I don’t know how or when that’ll stop but it won’t be anytime soon and I’m not looking forward to it happening when it does. Whatever the magic formula they hit on, they hit on it hard and despite some positive and negative tweaks over the years, they’ve never strayed enough from it to matter to the Public. I can only speculate on why that is, (Shrugs) I assume though that we just love these games, or that we just love these games presented this way.

No comments: