Square Pegs

Making Whoopi: As executive producer of the show, Ms. Goldberg occupies center square

The new Hollywood Squares is not nearly as depressing as you would expect. I don't mean to damn with faint praise--it's an entirely honest recognition that what could be an inordinately melancholy whiff of fame's afterburn is actually cheerier than it has any right to be. Of course, this is all relative: Any show featuring guest "stars" on the order of Harvey Korman, Carol Channing, and Malcolm-Jamal Warner has to take what it can get. (And it gets sadder: At the beginning of the show, we're encouraged to catch Caroline Rhea, Melissa Joan Hart's aunt from the execrable Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, who "will be appearing at Zany's in Nashville." Isn't that one of those things you shouldn't brag about, like winning a spirit award in high school?) Still, in the plutocratic wake cut by Regis, Maury, and their high-stakes wannabes, there's something reassuringly prim about a show where victory in the first game nets you $1,000 and a triumph in the second a whopping twice that.

The text of the old Hollywood Squares was, of course, subtext: Guest star Paul Lynde's bitchy-queen persona spoke volumes about camp, closeting, and the limits of revelation in a celebrity culture--and a Hollywood social orbit--where homosexuality could surface at parties or on weekends, but not onscreen or in print. It was almost impossible not to see Lynde's shrieking, mincing, passive-aggressive lunges at the contestants as a Seventies valedictory for a closeted tradition fast being erased in the West Village and the Castro.

Lynde, before his breakthrough a minor character actor best known as Uncle Arthur on Bewitched (probably the queerest show in TV history), had helped fire the revolution in the first place. He made his center-square debut in May of '68, of all times, just as Parisian radicals rushed to the barricades and America repaired its windows from the riots after Martin Luther King's assassination. (Grad-school queer-theory essay #1: Who did more to advance the cause of gay visibility, Paul Lynde or Michel Foucault? Discuss, taking account of the fact that Lynde and Liberace were probably the only two same-sexers much of Middle America had ever seen with its own eyes.)

So there's at least a submerged radical tradition to the new Hollywood Squares (9:30 a.m. weekdays on WFTC, Channel 29). The rules remain the same: Host asks star dumb question ("What is the City of Brotherly Love?"); star parries with bad joke; star offers answer; civilian contestant agrees or disagrees. Three X's or O's in a row wins, or most squares wins if nobody can put three in a row. But beneath its orderly ranks of letters, this new incarnation tells a wholly encouraging parable of post-civil-rights crossover. Now executive-produced by Whoopi Goldberg's company One Ho, the show seamlessly integrates her presence into the center square's position of authority. (Vanilla host Tom Bergeron, a longtime radio personality, knows who pays his checks; he keeps out of the way of "the Whoopster.") Whoopi almost always gets the first question, tosses in the odd person-of-color dissent to remind you she's not a white girl ("Why do I always get these questions?" she mock snarls when asked about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings), and generally has a fine time as the unquestioned center of her little universe: It's buppie assimilation at its most forceful.

Which is not to say that subtext remains wholly absent. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but I would like to hope that the ghost of Lynde's waspishness (now embodied by resident bitch Caroline Rhea, who has played a witch's relative, and seems to be encouraged to go out of her way to insult fellow panelists) still encourages viewers to camp up the show into some vestige of its bygone queeny glory. Among the fantasies licensed by the program, if perhaps not by King World Productions, is the zippy gay-porn Web site "Hollywood Squares--With a Difference!" a boy-band saturnalia featuring two Backstreet Boys, Elijah Wood, Brad Pitt, Ryan Philippe, and other hotties "exploring their sexuality," as they say on South Park. (Interested? Read the first four chapters of what promises to be an extensive process of awakening and self-discovery at apollo4.csd.net/nifty/gay/celebrity/

For further interpretive pleasure, consider is-she-or-isn't-she? Rosie O'Donnell, whose answers reveal that she's actually kind of smart. "This is right, I swear to God!" she yells, often jumping in before Bergeron finishes the question, as if she has taken an oath that nobody will mistake her for one of those brain-dead famous people. Rosie even gets away with refusing the pathetic wisecracks that the show foists off on its panelists (the hapless writers are named--or is that shamed?--in one of those fleeting end credits). Generous enough to laugh at the weakest efforts her fellow panelists are stuck with, she embodies the confidence of what we could call a post-gay culture assured enough to take its place at the table without protesting its previous exclusion.

Will it last? The newly multiculti Squares actually marks the third time around for this hardy perennial. A revamped New Hollywood Squares, hosted by John Davidson and starring Bronson Pinchot(!), struggled through three blow-dried seasons in the mid-Eighties before succumbing to audience indifference. Some taints of that legacy of failure do, admittedly, remain: Moldy guests like Bobcat Goldthwait, or Gilbert Gottfried--a one-man essay in futility--hint that the guy who plays the paranoid friend on That '70s Show should probably avoid future appearances if he wants to enjoy any sort of career.

Saddest of all, Harry Hamlin, star of the low-rent Movie Stars, a reputedly horrendous sitcom about washed-up celebrities, lived out one of his characters' story arcs by making an apparently coerced appearance with costar Jennifer Grant. It was way too meta for me: Will we now see an episode in which Harry's character rejoices at a guest shot on Hollywood Squares, pathetic has-been that he is? Even worse, during his stint in the bottom corner, nobody asked poor, dignified Harry a question. Gifted with a couple of reaction shots by a director who is doubtless instructed to allot everyone a moment onscreen, he looked pained at best as the jests lumbered by.

Consistent with those hints of time warp (Harry Hamlin!), the jokes themselves seem mired in the Seventies. "America's dairyland is in...?" Bergeron asks Cheech Marin. "Pamela Anderson's bra," Cheech smirks. Maybe this is compensation for all the star power that women project on this show; maybe it reveals a certain discomfort with a program that gives more time and volume to female voices. But these reactionary jokes are far outweighed by the gravity of Whoopi, Rosie, and their cohorts. Though it may linger around the bottom of the dial, this Hollywood Squares is a breath fresher than Oxygen, where the only joke on offer is its media hype.

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