Game Theory

The Wall, one of many TV game shows currently winning over primetime audiences, stars both plastic balls and American heroes.

Ben Cohen / NBC

In his book Rules of the Game: Quiz Shows and American Culture, the communications professor Olaf Hoerschelmann suggests how neatly American game shows have reflected the times that produced them. The radio quiz shows popular in the 1930s and 1940s used “man on the street”-framed trivia questions to bring a sense of democratization and intimacy to the country’s new mass medium. The TV shows of the ’50s tapped into the geopolitical anxieties of their age to emphasize, as Hoerschelmann puts it, “the hegemonic project of cold war education policy” and its “focus on Anglo-American elite culture.” The sober sets of series like The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One—and, in general, the well-spoken, well-educated contestants the shows’ producers selected to participate in them—effected an air of patriotic sobriety. In their soft celebrations of enlightenment, the game shows suggested all that was at stake in the fight for “the free world.”

Today, we tend to associate with “game shows” the form they took after the quiz show scandals of the later ’50s eroded Americans’ trust not just in the shows themselves, but in television as a medium—the form they took after they were reinvented as generally flashy, occasionally brash, and insistently low-stakes celebrations of street smarts. During the years of post-war prosperity and their attendant increase in consumerism, game shows began to take “home economics” extremely literally. They came to air in the daytime, and they targeted themselves at the audiences who watched TV during those hours: women, for the most part. Many of them reframed their challenges around the skills required of savvy consumption. The Price Is Right, a show that cheekily glorified the soft skills of shopping, first aired in the U.S., in its current form, in 1972.

The Price Is Right lives on—not just on CBS, where the show has been hosted, since 2007, by Drew Carey, but also, as of late 2016, in the form of its most popular game: Plinko. The show’s slanted, peg-studded wall has been reimagined, this time by NBC, as a standalone game, within a standalone show: The Wall, which currently airs as part of the network’s Tuesday-night primetime lineup.

Hosted by Chris Hardwick—and executive-produced by, among others, LeBron James—The Wall is, like its forebears, both a product and a flashy reflection of its times. It loves drama. It involves, yes, trivia. Featuring couples (married partners, siblings, friends) as players rather than individuals, it celebrates the warmth of human relationships. Mostly, though, the show has generally abandoned the vaguely educational impulses of game shows both past and present to emphasize another kind of ethic: the morality of wealth. The show assures its viewers that its contestants, very often war veterans and community leaders and otherwise “good people,” as Hardwick commonly refers to them, will be deserving of such riches. It offers “life-changing money,” Hardwick commonly refers to it, to those who deserve to have their lives changed. The Wall is a structure of chance; NBC has structured the game that revolves around it, however, to ensure that only “good people” will be allowed to get lucky.

The show works, roughly, like this: A couple, pre-vetted, is allotted a selection of large, plasticine balls. The pair is divided; one member—the one who remains onstage, with the affable Hardwick—chooses the slots from which each ball is released, from slot 1 on the left to 7 on the right. Each glowing orb seems to be sucked up, pneumatically, from the stage to the top of the wall; it is dropped, with a slight whooshing noise, from there. It pings around on the board as it falls, physics-ing frantically, until it settles, finally, into the slot that will help to determine the amount of “life-changing money” the playing couple is granted. The slots can be worth anything from $1 to, in the later rounds of the game, $1 million.

The ball-dropping process is repeated, many times over—with the drops adding money (at which point the wall turns green) or taking it away (at which point the wall turns red). The monetary values, plus and minus, increase as the game progresses; the point is to coax The Wall into giving more money than it takes away—something achieved, for the most part, through the secluded partner’s ability to correctly answer the show’s multiple-choice trivia questions. Correct answers mean that money is added, incorrect mean that it is subtracted. Oh, and! The member of the couple who does battle with The Wall has to bet, each time around, on whether the isolated partner will be able to answer the questions correctly, and … yes.

If all that sounds extremely complicated, it definitely is. But also, in practice: It definitely isn’t. There’s, sure, some de Moivre–Laplace theorem stuff happening with the physics of the ball movements, and there’s, totally, some prisoner’s dilemma business going on with the separated-but-cooperating couple, and there are, to be sure, approximately 23 different rules that Hardwick cheerfully reiterates, to players and viewers, each episode. All you really need to know, though—all anyone really needs to know, in the end—is that the ball drops, and it bounces, and it bounces again, and (aaaahhhh) it looks like it’s heading toward the $1 million slot, but then (aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!) it looks like it’ll land in the $1 slot, but then bounce and then bounce and then zig and then zag and the whole thing is so simple and so dramatic and so thoroughly, thoroughly riveting.

It is also, time after time, extremely tense. As Jarrod Guzman, a former Marine, told Hardwick of his time doing battle with The Wall, “I was literally less nervous invading Fallujah.”

#Winning. (Ben Cohen / NBC)

You could dismiss The Wall as derivative of many things that came before it: It’s Plinko, yes, but it’s also Pachinko meets a bean machine meets a comically large Lite-Brite board, with elements of trivia (Jeopardy!, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, etc.) and cooperation (Family Feud) and chance (Wheel of Fortune) thrown in for good measure. Oh, and did I mention that there’s a contract-negotiation element (Deal or No Deal?), too? Well, there’s a contract-negotiation element, too.

But another way of seeing The Wall is as a kind of towering culmination. Not just of the hulking, flashing structure for which it’s named—and not just of all those earlier American game shows, with their heady mix of intellectual attainment and good, old-fashioned fate—but also of this particular, and peculiar, moment in American history. “The Wall is the most American game show on TV,” Vulture’s Jen Chaney put it, astutely and correctly. And it is that both broadly and very specifically. NBC’s massive, money-mongering wall suggests, on the one hand, the teeming sense of omni-possibility that has accompanied a tech revolution and a century’s worth of swaggering American hegemony.

But The Wall also suggests, in its “these are deserving people” approach to its mind-boggling financial rewards, a certain fatigue—about politics, about voracious consumerism, about power itself. Each bounce of each ball is regulated not just by friction and collision and gravity, but also by a very precise kind of spin on the Protestant ethic: Riches, in the show’s framing, aren’t the reflections of one’s moral goodness so much as they are its well-deserved rewards. The Wall, like most game shows, uses money as a prize. Here, though, unlike other game shows, it is an end in itself. Contestants talk, in detail, about what they will do with the money they might win: pay off student loans, buy dream homes, start families. Hardwick talks about his own desire for them to walk away with “money for your family, for your future.”

Shantell Guzman, the wife of Jarrod, returned to the stage after being confined from her husband so he could tell her how much money the couple had coaxed from The Wall. “When I was back there,” she told him, tearfully, “I dreamed big. I dreamed of helping our parents. And I dreamed of the house I grew up in that my parents had to get rid of that is just magically back on the market now—and how awesome that would be to just pay it, cash.”

Shantell could be blunt because she trusted that Hardwick, and the audience along with him, was on her side. She trusted in the game itself—and in its producers’ desire to reward her, and her husband, and their four children, for their sacrifices. She trusted in The Wall’s highly structured approach to fate: its suggestion of a world that is ordered just enough to be fair, but disordered just enough to be interesting.

#Notlosing! (Ben Cohen / NBC)

In that sense, The Wall is reminiscent of some of its fellow reality shows—Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, for example, which was careful to select deserving families for its house-improvement efforts, or Undercover Boss, which often finds the bosses in question bestowing surprise bonuses on their employees, for good deeds gone previously unrewarded.

The Wall is less reminiscent, however, of its fellow primetime game shows. It is one of many series that are together creating a kind of game-show renaissance on American network television—many of them resurrections of that ’70s-style brand of show, so flashy and wacky and studded, sometimes, with “a constellation of stars.” ABC’s Celebrity Family Feud, hosted by Steve Harvey, is a celebrity-inflected remake of Mark Goodson’s 1976 series. Match Game, its set coyly referencing its own mid-century-tastic predecessors, is hosted by Alec Baldwin, and features cameos from stars like Ellie Kemper, Wayne Brady, and Rosie O’Donnell. Those shows, along with the Michael Strahan-hosted $100,000 Pyramid and the Anthony Anderson-hosted To Tell the Truth, make up ABC’s Sunday-evening lineup. The network has nicknamed the block its “Fun and Games” night.

The primetime game shows, unlike Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune and the many other series that play throughout the day on channels like the Game Show Network—and unlike the daytime game shows that preceded them, decades ago—are generally aiming for broad, cross-demographic audiences. And they seem to be finding them. ABC recently renewed all four of its primetime game shows. And NBC recently ordered 20 more episodes of The Wall. Over its first six telecasts, an NBC representative told me, the show has ranked first or second in its time slot among the big four networks in the 18-49 demographic. It has, like its fellow game shows, proven popular.

There are production-side reasons for game shows’ renaissance, to be sure: their reusable sets, their straightforward scripts and structures, the fact that they star, for the most part, regular people rather than actors, all of that making them less expensive to produce than scripted sitcoms and dramas. But the shows have a consumer-side appeal, as well. They may not have story arcs and narratives, in the manner of scripted shows; what they offer, however, is a kind of feel-good escapism. Game shows are only very subtly political. They are certainly not partisan. They are low-stakes, high-reward, and, in all that, inviting.

The Wall is all of those things. But it is also morally soothing. It offers up protagonists you can feel good about rooting for. It gives those “good people” the chance to win that “life-changing money.” But: only the chance. Will Jarrod and Shantell win the money that will help them to raise their children in their dream home? Will Chris and Katie win an amount that will help them to start their own family? Will Darnell, a “life-saving bus-driver,” and his brother Dion face The Wall, and walk away millionaires? They all deserve such good fortune, the show suggests; whether they will get it, however, will depend on them, and their producers, and, ultimately, a collection of balls that glow and bounce and tease and torment and, every so often, change lives.