dr ben satterfield

america's game


On any weekday evening, more people watch Wheel of Fortune than watch all network news programs combined and more than vote in any election. Since what we do reflects our values, reveals our attitudes, and gives evidence of what we consider enjoyable, it’s easy to conclude that people derive more satisfaction from watching the game show than they do from voting or keeping up with the news. Obviously, viewers want to be entertained, and the popularity of television in general attests to the fact that distraction is high on the list of what we want.

But why, precisely, is this glitzy program, this simple game with its easy rules, so appealing? It is, as proclaimed, “America’s game” (and it accurately manifests American values, desires and attitudes.) What citizen of this great country wouldn’t want to win thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of dollars expending only a few minutes’ worth of effort? Greed is our driving force, getting something for nothing is our dream, and luck is our talisman (according to surveys, luck ranks higher than intelligence or ability on the scale of what it takes to achieve success in America). And luck counts for more than anything else on this show: a spin of the wheel could land a player on an amount as high as $10,000 (the lowest is $250), on some “fabulous prize,” or on one of the two unfortunate spaces, BANKRUPT and LOSE A TURN. After landing on a lucky space, the player calls for a consonant, and if it is not in any of the blank spaces of the puzzle, the turn is lost, but if it is in the puzzle, Vanna White, called the “hostess,” will put her hand on the square or squares to bring the letter(s) to life, and the player gets to continue. For years, the letters were hidden on huge cubes, which Vanna had to turn by hand to expose, but now they are controlled electronically, giving the hostess more time to smile and pose, since she is purely an ornament—eye candy—and her role (what she does is not work) is superfluous.

If Vanna doesn’t have to be smart, neither do the contestants; indeed, some big winners have seemed dumber than your dullest relative. Many times players call for letters that are already showing in the puzzle or that have been called by other players. Many times. I have watched people lose a turn for calling a wrong letter only to have the next player request the same letter immediately (the studio audience, usually sympathetic to those onstage, sometimes titters at such witlessness). Once, I watched a player ask twice for a letter another player had already lost a turn for calling (letters that have been requested but are not in the puzzle are posted on a board that the contestants are supposed to watch if their short-term memory is AWOL or they have the attention span of a flashbulb). Pat Sajak, the bored “host” of this show, was prompted to say “Still no N” in his wry if not sardonic manner. With lots of money at stake, you’d think the players would be alert, but some of them appear to be absolute fatheads, all their concentration on avarice—they love to yell “BIG MONEY! COME ON, BIG MONEY!” And if you want to laugh at unmatched dumbness, watch the show during one of its Celebrity Weeks, when actors and actresses try to play the game. You’ll be convinced that showpeople are ego-bloated lamebrains who are impervious to embarrassment.

The more prizes and money players win, the more they’re likely to qualify for even greater treasure. For grand prizes, the big winner of each evening gets to play a “bonus round” without competition, and the three highest amount accumulators of the games on Monday through Thursday return on Friday to vie for even more. (Earlier, the big winner of one show would get to return for the next but was limited to three appearances if consistently lucky. The game’s sister program still operates this way, although Jeopardy is not for know-nothings, as Oliver North discovered to his abject abasement.) America loves winners and, as a rule, gives the greatest opportunity to those who need it least.

You’ll never see a homeless person on the show or anyone who’s really poor. Lawyers, dentists, real estate brokers, and executives for “major companies,” the already affluent, are represented aplenty. Like the audience, most of the players are solidly middle-class (only the college students could stand for the moneyless, although some of them have plenty), and the unprivileged, as expected, are excluded from participation. Basically, the show offers people who don’t need more of an opportunity to add to their abundance without having to struggle against economic odds—and without having to know much of anything. Viewers see it as a dream come true.

So, first we have the selection process. The indigent, as always in our culture, are shunned in favor of the affluent or un-needy. Players are usually “feel good” people, ebullience being a quality sought after by the program’s scouts, who choose exuberance over intelligence (this is, after all, show business, where glitter and flash are paramount, and entertainment is the highest value). Although hailing from various parts of the country and being of different races, the contestants are markedly similar, the men with their “beautiful” wives or fiancés and the women with their “wonderful” husbands and “terrific” kids. They represent a cross-section of middle-class America—positive, generally good-natured, and, from appearances, not terribly bright. They are so homogeneous that twice I could have sworn I recognized contestants from previous shows, but then realized they were just like the earlier players.

After getting on the program and playing the game, only the big winner of the evening is eligible to play for even more. A democratic show or one even the least bit concerned with fairness would give a second opportunity to the empty-handed or the minimum winners, not the maximum ones. But this is “America’s game,” and Americans have never believed in democracy or cared much about justice in matters that don’t affect them personally. We sense that the winners are special, blessed with luck, and root them on; the losers are, well, losers, and undeserving of our interest: get them off camera and out of sight quickly.

If Seinfeld is, as Entertainment Weekly claims, “the defining sitcom of our age,” then Wheel of Fortune is the defining game show. Like Seinfeld, it glorifies the mundane and meaningless. For example, CLASSIC TV is a puzzle category that pays homage to earlier schlock programs that are best forgotten, not venerated or garlanded with “classic,” a debased appellation that has nothing to do with quality or timelessness but means only that the chosen program was aired in the past, most likely a black and white time that is misty only because of indiscriminate nostalgia. If Petticoat Junction, Gilligan’s Island, and The Beverly Hillbillies are in any way classic, then what trash from the past does not qualify? But the mediocre and mindless constitute the grist for this mill because it is America’s game through and through.

Television is a market-driven industry, and it panders shamelessly to the tastes and desires of its audience, whose attention is fixed on the trivial. Brand names are important, as is knowledge of corporate mottos, which are frequently used on Wheel of Fortune as puzzles, although never identified as commercial slogans but rather as phrases. Being able to identify the product or company behind a particular phrase is worth additional thousands.

Popular culture has a penchant for brand names and the utterly superficial, and Wheel of Fortune belongs very much to popular culture. Twenty years ago, a friend told me of a survey she had read that claimed the majority of young girls in America most admired Vanna White. “Who?” I had to ask, because at that time I did not watch television and knew nothing of the program. My friend explained Vanna’s role on the show and reported that this statuesque model spoke only at the end, and very simply. “Bye-bye” she would say, smiling and waving to the camera. My friend was dismayed that girls looked up to Vanna since she displayed no qualities of any depth and seemed to be all surface and poise (certainly she has no acting ability, and even though she reads some of the show’s “commercial messages,” her voice is unprofessional). Over the years, Vanna has tried to dispel the image of the quintessential “dumb blonde,” but without much success; she does speak more on the program, but to little effect other than to prove to the world that she can form sentences.

I wondered then and you may wonder now why young Females would admire a woman who has made a career of her looks. Has Feminism taught us nothing? Apparently, popular culture still sees the Female as adornment (and Vanna is a perfect example.) Putting aside Feminist dogma, why wouldn’t girls, especially the vapid and echo-headed, want to be like her? She’s rich, famous, and has little responsibility. Let the man (in this case, the blasé Sajak, who projects an air of disdain for what he does) thrust and parry with the guests and maintain control of the show. The woman’s job is to look pretty, wear striking outfits, smile a lot, and be adored—a dream come true. She is there to be looked at, not listened to, a decoration pure and simple: the Ideal Woman.

And the audience has the same relationship to the show that Sajak has: as viewers we are devoted to it without being engaged with it, without being truly connected. Sajak often appears distant, as if his attention is elsewhere, on something worthy of his interest; he seems detached and ironic, even condescending in his attitude toward the show, and I think most of the viewing audience feels the same way (I don’t know what to think of the studio audience). We can laugh at and mock the contestants for their stupidity, identify with the host as he comments drily, envy the winners, and feast our eyes on the posing Vanna, Barbie Doll to the world.

American television, to paraphrase TS Eliot, functions to distract us from distraction by distraction, and it works amazingly well. Day and night all year round, it abounds with energy, movement, sound, and fury, providing a panoply of mostly asinine programs to keep our minds off anything worth thinking about. It exalts the frivolous, promotes the commercial, and extols consumerism. Wheel of Fortune does all three with gusto—and with Vanna White.

Wheel of Fortune is America’s game, all right. And more’s the pity.

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