Who's Afraid of Alex Trebek?

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

I didn't boast about it at the time, but as a teenager I possessed an unusual intimacy with household economics. How close was I to the subject, you ask? Put it this way: I could price oven cleaner, furniture polish, and floor wax down to the dime. True, I helped out regularly with the shopping (Free to Be You and Me being a generational birthright), but the bulk of my knowledge came from elsewhere. For I was a devotee of The Price Is Right, and I still vividly recall the shock of suddenly discovering Bob Barker's decision to stop coloring his hair.

My other favorite, Joker's Wild, was rich with a history of which I was wholly ignorant. Amiable host Jack Barry, it turns out, had ridden the program back from the Gehenna he had been consigned to when his Twenty-One took the fall in the late-'50s quiz-show scandal. Little did I know, while camped out in front of the television on sick days from school, that I was watching the tail end of a new golden era. Countless game shows crowded the dial in the early '80s, ranging from '70s holdovers like Family Feud to revived oldies like Tic Tac Dough and Jeopardy, and whatever your demographic, there was a show for you.

Now, however, aside from reruns on the mostly unavailable Game Show Network (which, set beside the heavily advertised "old school" Classic Sports Network, should provide some enterprising grad student with a quickie article about popular memory, capitalism, and mass culture), the big prizes have mostly gone the way of the model train set. Save for holdouts like Wheel of Fortune, game shows' huge payoffs (and not inconsiderable production costs) have yielded to reality TV's heaps of low-rent gore. Which is really too bad: As titles like Big Payoff, Dough Re Mi, and of course The $64,000 Question made plain, at their best, game shows ladled out the American myth of success-through-accumulation in its most primitive, and most emotionally accessible, form. It was democracy in action, and anyone could (and did) hit the jackpot--from an unknown named Joyce Brothers, who took home $64,000 for her expertise on boxing, to art collectors Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson, who split the same top prize between them.

It's not as if we've stopped believing in quick riches, but perhaps we now prefer the leaner, crueler methods that the infomercials push on us: seizing distressed properties from grieving widows, for instance. Or perhaps we've lost confidence in the game shows' brand of imperial self-validation. In recent years, Gen-X-targeted games, poorer and snottier relations to their grand forebears, have mocked the format's pretense to cultural capital through aggressive triviality. MTV's Remote Control set contestants in recliners amid a suburban rec room to answer bathrobe-clad host Ken Ober's useless quizzes about Marcia Brady's love life. The channel's more ingenious entry, though, was the short-lived Trashed, which gave the lie once and for all to the genre's something-for-nothing fantasy: If you lost, your possessions got the ax, sometimes literally.

Two new entries offer a very '90s spin: low payoffs (a maximum of $5,000); smirky Lettermanesque byplay between host and announcer; and knowing winks at an audience too cool to kiss Bob Barker when they're called up onstage to win that Amana range. VH1 has the officially licensed Rock & Roll Jeopardy (Saturdays, 7-8 p.m. and other times), a carbon copy right down to the electric guitar that rocks up Final Jeopardy's unforgettable theme. Comedy Central's lower-budget entry, Win Ben Stein's Money (weekdays 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.), rolls out some mental firepower; its feisty, so-old-it's-new unpretentiousness makes this one of the freshest game shows in years. Yet despite surface similarities, there are significant differences as well, the most crucial being each program's ability to negotiate the irony chasm: Jeopardy stumbles on its own pretenses to hipness, whereas Ben Stein glories in braininess.

Somehow, despite its pedigree and consequent ready-made authority, the chintzy Rock & Roll Jeopardy feels like the upstart. Its sparsely decorated stage (suggesting a kind of infomercial production style, as if the show is shot on the sly at night when the studio's closed), its painfully lightweight host (Jeff Probst), its contestants unschooled in the parent show's careful protocols (on a recent show, one of them persisted in yelling out the answer even when he hadn't been called on)--all this inadvertently reveals how much power Alex Trebek's faux gravitas actually packs. In a culture so suspicious of intellect that a career minor-leaguer like Camille Paglia can con her way into the big time, Alex is as compelling a public intellectual as America has seen in years. Sure, his erudition might extend no further than the next cue card (in fact, Trebek reports that he typically can give the correct "questions" to a healthy majority of Jeopardy's "answers") but his prissy elocution and schoolmarm's scrupulousness are refreshing and almost charming. This is what the classroom, and "learning," used to be: You can imagine Trebek putting Charles van Doren on the straight-and-narrow.

Rock & Roll Jeopardy, on the other hand, can't decide whether to love its inner Alex or mock him, and the result, so far, is some uninvolving television. The show feels unintentionally trivial and, worse, boring, as we plod onward through the half-hour. Admittedly, it wins points for a telegenic assortment of hipsters that strays from the genre's typically bland stock characters. Instead of the usual Marines on leave or vacationing housewives, recent episodes featured paralegals, a multiply pierced alternadude with shaved head and goatee, and a law student who jokingly threatened to jack another contestant in the parking lot for her salary. But as yet, this show is less invigorating than reading liner notes off the Internet or playing along with the original at home. Its producers need to figure out a tone: Is this Jeopardy for a generation raised on rock, or a parody of same for a generation raised on Seinfeld?

 

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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