There’s a scene in the 1979 comedy The In-Laws where Peter Falk plays an international spy who doesn't apparently spend a lot of time at home. He's at a bar and notices something on the TV that he finds weirdly mesmerizing. It’s The Price Is Right.
“And they’re supposed to guess the price of all this crap?” Falk is asking the guy next to him. “How long’s this show been on the air?”
The other guy is incredulous. “Since about 1911,” he says.
There is nothing on TV like a classic game show. The Price Is Right, Jeopardy!, Password — these formats are ageless, changeless, and seemingly deathless. We could pull that clip they used in the movie (Dennis James hosted the evening edition of TPIR in the 1970s) and put it up next to Drew Carey's version today. The guests are more excitable and racially diverse these days, but basically not much has changed.
That's the thing about the classic formats. When they work, they really work. You can print money with them around the globe. Family Feud has been through six hosts and is still chugging along. Even Louie Anderson couldn’t kill it off.
This summer ABC has six (!) of these relics cued up and ready to go: Pyramid, Card Sharks, the Feud, Press Your Luck, To Tell the Truth, and my all-time favorite, Match Game. After a television season that limped to the finish line, with productions shutting down abruptly, episode orders cut short, seasons without finales… now, suddenly, ABC’s bench is sagging with fresh product, hours and hours of lighter-than-light entertainment where nobody acts like we’re living in “uncertain times,” nobody phones it in on Zoom, nobody even mentions COVID, because these things were taped months ago.
Game shows for the win. I’ve already set my TiVo for Match Game, though I suppose it would be more fitting if I hauled out my VCR — or even better, the cassette recorder from my youth. (True story: I used to tape the audio of Match Game and listen to it later. Another true story: These days when somebody puts me on hold, I sometimes sing the show's think cue to myself.)
I don’t know whose idea it was to get Alec Baldwin to host Match Game in its post-2016 revival, but that person should run ABC. Not everyone can banter endlessly with celebrities while playing a very slow game of Mad Libs. That was the special talent of Gene Rayburn, Match Game’s original host, when it was TV’s most-watched daytime show in the ’70s and also had a hugely popular syndicated edition, Match Game PM. Baldwin channels Rayburn even better than he channels Trump. And his job is harder, because Rayburn was allowed to keep a stable of regular panelists (Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly), whereas part of the purpose of these revivals is to promote ABC shows and talent, so Baldwin has a different lineup every single week, and some of these celebs pretty clearly haven't done anything like Match Game in their lives.
Match Game is a good example of why, even when the times change, the format shouldn’t. Once the design and flow of a game show are established, and the audience and contestants know what to expect, you don’t want to go twiddling the dials. See for yourself: Wink Martindale, a game show classic in his own right, just posted the 2004 pilot episode of What the Blank, an attempt to freshen up Match Game. Not even the late great Fred Willard could rescue it.
I’m also DVRing To Tell the Truth, which is hosted by game show all-star Anthony Anderson. I don’t think there’s an ABC game show Anderson hasn’t popped up on. David Letterman was the greatest celebrity game show player I ever saw, but Anthony Anderson is the most entertaining. You need someone like him to host a format like To Tell the Truth, where celebrities try to guess which of three dull-as-dishwater guests is telling the truth about their identity.
So why do game shows stick around? As with other unscripted fare — blooper shows, home-flipping shows, table-flipping shows — they carry relatively low risk. The talent is cheap, you don’t need a huge room of writers and producers, and the prize money is low and getting lower. The top prize on Match Game PM in 1977 was $10,000. That’s worth $42,000 today, but the top prize on Match Game now is just 25 grand. If you won The $100,000 Pyramid in 1985, it would be worth $239,500 today (minus, of course, a huge chunk of tax).
But with low risk often comes low reward. Audiences declined for all but the top-tier daytime game shows, leading networks to move away from them. NBC and ABC found news and talk shows did better for them in the time period. Only CBS has doubled down on game shows, adding Let’s Make a Deal (first produced by Joe Behar, Joy’s ex, in 1963) to The Price is Right in 2009.
ABC, however, has figured out how to supercharge these old 30-minute formats into hour-long entertainments. The result is a healthy stable of time-tested shows, unlike the Japanese-inspired shows they’ve also leaned into. (Holey Moley, which returns for a second season tonight on ABC, is basically mini-golf meets Wipeout, hopefully minus the pointless death or disability.)
The one-hour format is helpful to shows like Match Game, which do the logical thing and play two games. Not so much with Celebrity Family Feud. The season premiere, airing 8:00 PM ET Sunday, pits the casts of the two Queer Eye shows against each other. If there are two reasons to watch, they're because (a) Carson Kressley seemingly has not aged a day since his Bravo peak, and (b) Karamo Brown couldn’t make the taping so he sent the pride of Kansas City, and Queer Eye makeover hero Wesley Hamilton, in his place.
Unfortunately, on Celebrity Family Feud they play just one full game in an hour, which means four overly long warmup games before getting to the lightning round (which is the best part). That leaves a lot of time to kill, which means there's a lot of Steve Harvey joshing contestants on their bad answers, and while no one is better at vamping for time than Steve Harvey, it gets exhausting.
Press Your Luck — best known as the game show that someone successfully, and legally, gamed back in the ’80s — was revived last year, along with Card Sharks. It’s worth watching just because Elizabeth Banks, so great in Mrs. America, is that rarest of rare things in television, the female game show host. And she’s good at it.
I haven’t caught either the Card Sharks or Pyramid revivals, but you can bet I will this summer. I mean, what else is there to watch?
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: Game Shows, ABC, The $100,000 Pyramid, Card Sharks, Celebrity Family Feud, Holey Moley, Jeopardy!, Let's Make a Deal, Match Game, Password, Press Your Luck, The Price is Right, To Tell the Truth, Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson, Carson Kressley, Elizabeth Banks, Gene Rayburn, Peter Falk, Steve Harvey, Wink Martindale