Who's Afraid of Alex Trebek?

With skinny jackpots and ironic hosts, a new generation of game shows competes for viewers

 

Win Ben Stein's Money, in comparison, successfully trades on the stock-in-trade of the game show: smart guests, hard questions, and a clever host. A former Nixon speechwriter and current law professor at Pepperdine (where he just missed enjoying the company of Ken Starr at faculty meetings), the sneering, condescending Stein now contributes regularly to the right-wing rag The American Spectator. True to such convictions, Stein dramatizes capitalism as a mano-a-mano struggle as much Mortal Kombat as Adam Smith. In the final round, which pits the last remaining contestant against Stein himself, an old-fashioned safe is wheeled onstage to remind all concerned what's at stake.

Set in a mock-up of a study, complete with leather-bound books on the shelf, Ben Stein features unashamedly nerdy contestants (most of whom look like they could really use the money) answering unabashedly intelligent questions. Where else would you be asked on what ticket Martin van Buren ran for the Presidency in 1848? (As I'm sure no one needs reminding, it was the Free Soil party.) Complete with actual wit--try categories like "Freud Green Tomatoes" or "The High Costner of Making Bad Movies"--the show is both challenging for the couch-encased watcher and appealingly human in its low-tech approach.

At the center of the show is Stein. His droll delivery slyly sends up every game-show host's highbrow affectations, while his participation in the game (he plays in the second round, after the lowest scorer has been eliminated, as well as the finale) leaves no doubt that he is, as he claims, "smarter than you." By reducing the game show to its primal acquisitive core, one human against another for a finite pot of gold, it reacquaints the viewer with the reasons we created mass art in the first place--not to paper over our daily struggles, but to dress them up and lend them a significance that we know in our hearts they don't really merit.

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