A classic game show is a comfort during Covid
In January, back when there was school you had to leave the house to attend, my 10-year-old daughter was home sick. I work from home, so that morning the two of us were side-by-side in my bed. While I typed away on my laptop, my girl was next to me, alternating between dozing off and watching TV. After a couple of hours, she started getting restless. She didn’t want to eat. She had no appetite. She didn’t want to play a game. She had no energy. I was running out of ideas.
“What time is it?” I asked her.
She glanced at the clock on the DVR, “Almost 11.”
Out of nowhere, an idea: “Have you ever seen The Price Is Right?”
The Price is Right premiered on NBC in November 1956. In 1963, the show switched networks and moved to ABC, where it aired its final episode two years later. In 1972, a reformatted version premiered on CBS, making The Price is Right one of only a few game shows that has aired on all of what were then known as the big-three networks.
With more than 9,000 episodes and counting, The Price is Right is television’s longest-running game show. It is also the highest-rated show on daytime TV. I write for daytime TV. Every week I see the ratings, and every week The Price is Right is number one. I never understood why — until the day I watched it with my daughter and remembered how freaking great it is.
If you were born between 1968 and 1978, chances are when you were home sick from school you watched The Price is Right. If you’re not familiar with the show, it starts with the announcer calling four audience members to contestants row (“Come on Down!”) A prize is then rolled out, maybe a pair of wristwatches or suitcases.
Each contestant gets one chance to guess the price of the prize. Whoever’s closest without going over wins the prize and goes up on stage to play a pricing game where they have a chance to win a bigger and better prize. (If they’re lucky, it’s “a brand-new car!”) All contestants who make it on stage get a chance to spin the big wheel in The Showcase Showdown. The two who fare best make it to The Showcase, where one emerges as the big winner, provided both don’t overbid.
When I was a kid, the Price is Right was hosted by Bob Barker, who did the job from 1972 to 2007. When he retired, Drew Carey took over. Bob was one of the greatest game show hosts ever, and Drew’s terrific, too. But they’re different. If Bob is a martini, Drew is a root beer float. Sweet and delightful. He’s always smiling and has a chill, affable vibe that puts contestants at ease and casts a positive energy over the whole operation.
My daughter and I had a fantastic time watching the show together. I was surprised and thrilled by how into it she was. I loved that she loved seeing contestants go bonkers when they were called down to contestants row. Whooping and fist-pumping and dancing down the aisle, high-fiving everyone along the way. I loved that she loved guessing the prices of recliners and washer-dryers and designer accessories, and the way the show’s models fawned over a can of cat food like it was the Hope diamond.
When the episode ended, my daughter asked me to record all five new episodes every week so we could watch them with her dad in the evening. And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.
It’s such a trip seeing all the pricing games from my childhood — Cliff Hangers and Dice Game, Master Key and Punch a Bunch, and, of course, Plinko. While so much about the show is exactly the same, they have made additions and upgrades. Gone are the dinette sets and grandfather clocks, replaced by VR goggles and iPhones. The trips seem more extravagant — vacations to Iceland and Turks & Caicos and ‘round-the-world ventures to Brazil and Greece and Thailand. Though every once in a while, there will be a random city tossed into the mix. “A five-night stay in beautiful downtown Cleveland!”
There’s Kids Week now, with contestants ranging from preschool age (with their parents) all the way up through college students, Dream Car Week, where you might win a Maserati or a Porsche, and Music Week, which this year featured Diplo, Fall Out Boy, and Meghan Trainor. In 2019, during Big Money week, a man from Freehold, N.J. became the biggest winner in the show’s history, taking home $262,742.97 in cash and prizes.
You may ask if I’m worried about exposing my daughter to all this materialism — the cars and vacations and cash. The answer is hell, no. I think it’s hilarious that she can identify a Nissan Kicks or a Toyota Yaris the instant she sees it, correctly guess the price of a digital meat thermometer, and knows if a 20-ounce jar of Spanish olives is more expensive than a six-count box of granola bars. Who knows, it might even be sharpening her math skills.
These days, the show, which airs at 11 a.m. in New York, is pre-empted halfway through by Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings, so we seek out episodes on You Tube. I’m not sure who puts them there or whether it’s kosher rights-wise, but they’re available and they’re awesome.
If The Price is Right was an ideal hour-long tonic before Covid-19, it’s even better now. Everything about it — the theme song, the kitschy sets, the goofy t-shirts the contestants wear, how excited and happy everyone is — just has a way of lifting your spirits.
I’m not sure how a show where everyone greets the host with either a handshake (remember those?), a bear hug, or a full-on jump up and wrap their arms and legs around him is going to look with social-distancing measures in place. But I have every confidence they’ll figure it out.
I’m not trying to convince anyone that The Price is Right is high art or some sort of intellectual pursuit. It’s fun and it’s joyful and it’s a comforting escape for our family during this horrendous pandemic. As one of the show’s models, Rachel Reynolds, told The Washington Post in 2019, “It has gotten so many people through a rough time.”
It’s doing that for us now and we’re grateful. Consider checking it out next time you’re feeling blue. And don’t forget to get your pets spayed or neutered.