This morning I brought my car to the dealership for some routine maintenance, an event which combines my Two Favorite Things in the Entire World — sitting around in a waiting room and fretting over the possibility of catastrophic news.
My courtesy room companion was a rough-edged retiree with a cane and a Skoal-branded trucker cap. He was there to get some work done on his Corvette. He spent the entire time cycling through the array of basic cable offerings on the area’s 55″ Samsung flatscreen, pausing only to let out a growl-grunt noise at random intervals.
He eventually settled on the Game Show Network, making it through the opening fol-de-rol of Card Sharks before a service tech handed him his keys and told him he was ready to go. I didn’t bother changing the channel after he left, as I had my PSP on hand to distract me and it was about as good as I was going to get in terms of daytime TV background noise.
At first, I assumed the broadcast was a note-perfect retro remake of the original Card Sharks. It wasn’t until once of the contestants mentioned “women’s libbers” that I looked up at the screen, saw Jim Perry’s polyestered presence, and realized it was an actual artifact of the age of Chic and Carter.
My retrological curiosity got the better of me, making it increasingly difficult to look away. By the time the $10,000 Pyramid — with celebrity guests Earl Holliman and the Big Haired Blonde Lady from Scarecrow and Mrs. King — came on, I’d put my PSP in sleep mode to focus my entire concentration on the game.
If you asked me about the rules of either show before that moment, I’d have responded with some vague and likely inaccurate impressions dredged from hazy memory. The act of watching them, however, triggered a unsettling surge of unsettling familiarity born of countless hours parked in front of the family TV set.
When I was in fifth grade, my class were issued recorder flutes and drilled on how to play certain short pieces. One of these was Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which we practiced incessantly in preparation for a school recital. I know next to nothing about musical notation or composition, but put me in front of a piano, xylophone, or simple woodwind and I could plunk out “Ode to Joy” as a reflexive effort.
My understanding of the byzantine and prop-heavy realm of 1970s game shows comes from a similar space.
I was more unsettled by the arc of engagement I experienced after that triggered moment of epiphany. What began as “interesting retro artifact” turned into “I could do better than that dope” followed by “I should be in that contestant’s chair.” And I’m not talking about any contestant’s chair, I’m talking about being on a thirty-and-change year old episode of Card Sharks or $10,000 Pyramid.
As impulses go, it’s up there with wanting to be a Pony Express rider or mammoth hunter, mnemonic atavism at its most futilely bizarre. Such was the power of Stewart, Goodman, Todson, Barris and other peddlers of gimmicky fame and fortune that the intoxicating power of their work remains as potent as the mustard gas inside a rusting shell casing under some Flanders field.
The spell was broken rather abruptly during the contestant introduction sequence for a current remake of Press Your Luck. The be-sideburned auto plant workers and permed-up guidance counselors of yesteryear have been replaced by a clutch of spray-tanned Millennials whose plans for the grand prize all involved paying off debts and moving out of their parents’ homes.
These ambitions were stated with an astonishing level of contractually-obligated, fist-pumping enthusiasm that shocked and saddened me in equal measure.
Forget the all-expenses paid trip to Tahiti, kids. Breaking even is the new grand prize.