The Price Is Right & the Light at the End of The Tunnel

Photo credit: Dave Malkoff

Since the onset of the pandemic, many of us have been living like the bright-eyed young soldier in the war movie with his whole life ahead of him, making his way through the treacherous jungle and saying things like “I’ve got a girl back home, and as soon as I get out of here next week, I’m gonna give her my class ring” (right before he takes a poison dart to the neck or gets mauled by a tiger or something): Day after day, we find ourselves carried by hopes of a brighter future, even when that future just means a return to the past, like going back to movie theaters or stadiums, or grabbing a few drinks after you leave an office that you put on actual pants and shoes to go to.

Just like that weathered photo the soldier kept under his helmet or inside his boot, I’d imagine many of us, to a degree, have a certain something we’ve been holding close to our hearts throughout this ordeal, be it an establishment, location, or event that we’ve had to live without for the past year. A light at the end of our tunnels that, although it’s seemed farther and farther away at times, is still out there, and when we finally reach it, all will be right with the world once again.

While it’s fair to assume that certain elements of our existence have been irrevocably altered during this time, there will, at some point, be a moment where things finally feel like they’ve gone back to normal, and if you ask me, things will feel that way when The Price is Right says so, and not a moment sooner.

Before we continue, I think it’d be helpful to let you in on a little bit of prologue: I started writing this in the summer of 2020, and when I did, its message was completely different. While everyone else was coping with the pandemic, The Price is Right was simply tossing out pre-COVID reruns, hence my title, “The Price is Right: The COVID Oasis for When We Need To Get Away From the Living Nightmare of It All” (I hadn’t officially nailed down that title, but you get the idea).

For those of us suddenly finding ourselves teleworking during the day (or out of work altogether), we were seeing these The Price is Right episodes for the first time, and aside from the occasional theme show (a Halloween or New Years event, for example), there was no telling when they were supposed to be taking place. For myself, this shift in The Price is Right access earned the show a promotion from “sick leave and/or federal holiday” to “daily appointment viewing” status for just about eight straight months, and each episode felt like it was being filmed in some sort of alternate reality where pandemics simply didn’t exist: A place where winning a week on a cruise ship was celebrated without an ounce of trepidation, and where total strangers renounced personal space to gather around the same microphone like a barbershop quartet. Life was good in this glorious little fantasy world, and I wanted to tell you all about it so we could meet up and celebrate each day.

Unfortunately, I never got around to actually writing that piece (I don’t mean to brag, but I’m like the Mozart of procrastination — over time, I’ve finely tuned abilities that were undeniable even at a young age), and in late October, the show began airing brand new, pandemic-era episodes, which meant that The Price is Right, that noble, mighty fortress of COVID-free entertainment, had finally been breached. While the games were largely the same (instead of a model handing you your plinko chips, you now pick them up from a stand — you know, little tweaks like that), the atmosphere of the show had been dramatically changed: No more audience, no more hugs, high-fives or handshakes, and contestants now emerge from backstage one at a time, do a little celebratory dance (presumably of their choosing), and make their way to their socially distanced podiums stationed on the stage itself. Host Drew Carey stands at least six feet away from everyone at all times, and wearing a mask has supplanted spaying and neutering your pets as his final reminder of the day.

The show’s changes are necessary and completely understandable, but they remove an element of its spirit that’s impossible to ignore. Today, when a contestant runs over to check out his brand new exercise equipment or dining room set, the models smile and back away like he’s got a bomb strapped to his chest. It’s a muted celebration that pales in comparison with the good old days, but since they still win some free stuff, I imagine the contestant gets over it pretty quickly. On the other hand, when a college student named Beth missed a putt that would have won her a brand new car, she just had to stand there all alone. Nobody to hug, nobody to console, nobody to put an arm around her and tell her a joke as they went to commercial break. For a moment, the silence was deafening, like an astronaut leaving the ship and floating around in nothingness. Just poor college student Beth, marinating in failure all by herself on a putting green, her disappointment eating her alive as a model shouts encouragement from thirty feet away. These are the bad times.

They’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got, but the new versions really illuminate the elements that made the show what it was, things we may have taken for granted for all those years. For example, now that he’s operating from a safe distance, I believe Drew Carey never received the praise he deserved for the way he used to handle quite possibly the most unpredictable species on Earth: A The Price is Right contestant who just won the right to play. You have to remember, we’re not talking about your regular Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune kind of game show contestants, those people are competing on their respective shows because they had specific appointments, made way in advance, to do so. The Price is Right contestants are people who left their homes that morning with no idea that they’d actually have the chance to win a small fortune in cash and prizes while playing games they’d dreamt of playing since they were children, and now that it was finally happening, they’d harness all that adrenaline and sprint straight at Carey like they’re down six points and he’s standing on the one yard line. Since he had no idea where these people’s heads were at, Carey had to play the whole thing like a secret service agent, assuming the best, preparing for the worst, ready for anything that may happen. Are they going with the formal businessman handshake? Fist bump? Three step handshake-clinch-back to handshake move? Are they going to ignore the fact that he’s a 62-year-old stranger and force him, without warning, to support the entirety of their body weight, jump into his arms, or pick him up like a child? You never know until it’s go time, and moments before impact, Carey would scan the contestant like a T-1000, presumably grab a few superficial clues that help better his chances, and handle the situation with a remarkably high rate of success.

Photo Credit: Army & Air Force Exchange

Beyond individual contributions, the new filming style forces you to appreciate how much of the show’s spirit comes from the studio audience; the games are still a good time, but it’s nowhere near the same without the energy of the crowd. There’s no more supportive group of humans on this planet than a The Price is Right studio audience, and if they’re not genuinely happy for one another, they’re all outstanding liars. The only time there’s even the slightest bit of tension is when a contestant wagers $1 higher than another, and even that usually just results in a joking glare or lighthearted punch in the shoulder. Do you know how jovial one has to be to keep the dreaded $1 overbid from visibly cutting them to their core? If someone overbids you by a dollar in the final round of The Price is Right, and they go on to win the prize, it’s technically not even a crime to run up on them in the parking lot after the show and kick them in the chest. I looked it up; it’s totally your call.

(By the way, since we’re on the subject: Say it’s everyone’s last chance to bid, and the person who went before you looks to be at least three, maybe four times your age. I don’t care how much they bid, if you outbid them by exactly $1, you should be removed from the studio and taken directly to jail. And yes, as a matter of fact I am talking to you, Cara from the February 20, 2018 episode featuring guest appearance from Jack Black, I’m talking directly to you. I know Judith guessed exactly right on those Samsung tablets and won the $500 bonus anyway, but that’s not the point and we both know it.)

Aside from the rare, unforgivable lapses in humanity, The Price is Right is about people from all walks of life coming together as one, and it’s truly remarkable to witness the degree of harmony and blind trust at play when someone with no idea how much something costs solicits advice from strangers who not only also have no idea how much it costs, but have nothing to lose by guessing incorrectly. The greatness of the show in its proper, pre-COVID form, is an experience best summed up by a delightful contestant named Tammy. When given the chance to spin that gigantic wheel and send some shoutouts to friends, relatives, etc., Tammy simply spun the wheel, waved to the crowd and said “Hi everybody!” She then turned to Carey and explained, “They’re all my new friends.”

Photo Credit: Dave Herholz

It’s by no means what it used to be, but having watched The Price is Right every day for the better part of a year, I can honestly say that the show remains an incredibly beneficial use of one’s time spent at home. The games remain easy and fun to play from home, it’s not so involved that you have to watch every second or devote the entirety of your attention to it, and although it’s a drastically watered down version, it still feels good to see the joy on someone’s face as they win a game they didn’t even know they’d be playing. Finally, and I hate to brag a second time here, but my watercraft appraisal skills have increased dramatically over a very short period of time.

That said, the show is undeniably different, and it’s easy to feel down about the changes, but honestly, that just puts it on the same level as practically everything else in society. We’re fighting to get back to normal on a million different fronts, and at least 20, maybe 25, are more important than The Price is Right. Someday we’ll return to the old show where the audience screams, contestants hug, and friends and family rush the stage to celebrate your brand new, let’s say, $42,650 pontoon. We’ll cheer louder, and we’ll laugh harder, and we’ll fear for Drew Carey’s safety like never before. Until then, these new episodes will serve as a reminder of the past we have to look forward to, the good life that awaits when the time is right and the battle is won. Until then, we’re just making our way through the jungle, fighting to get back home.

You may know me as Joe the policeman in the What's Going Down episode of That's My Momma.

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