The Price is Right — Or Is It?

Last Monday, “The Price is Right” began its 34th season. That is a long time for a game show to run! I’ve just begun my 32nd year, and I’m already exhausted.

Though it was a staple of my TV diet growing up, I hadn’t watched “The Price is Right” for many, many years. But in my ongoing quest for understanding of our world and the way it works, I watched the 34th season premiere, to see what I’d been missing. These are my findings.

We open on a television studio where the audience reacts as though they have each had the blood in their veins replaced with pure, unfiltered crack. They are ecstatic … and nothing has happened yet! The announcer, who was Johnny Olson and Rod Roddy when I was a kid but who is now Rich Fields, reads the names of four audience members, and each of those people responds by increasing his or her level of rabidness by a factor of 10.

First is Zane, who is seated in a cluster of Boy Scouts and who looks no older than one. Next is Dustin, also quite young, though not evidently affiliated with any youth organization. Then there are Bobette and Natalie, both mid-30s mom types. It seems likely that Bobette and Natalie are destined to win, while Zane and Dustin are destined for infamy.

Bob Barker emerges next, not from the doors onstage but from the back of the studio. I assume this is a special treat for the season premiere. The audience responds by leaping to its feet and screaming in abject joy. They are the happiest they have ever been in their lives. Some of them rend their clothing in delirium, while others openly and freely urinate on themselves. Foam and spittle soak the floors.

Bob takes the stage, is handed his microphone by a disembodied arm, and thanks the audience for its loving ovation. The audience responds by continuing to scream fervently, the sound of bursting aneurysms echoing through the studio like the popping of bubble wrap.

Here I note that Bob looks positively ANCIENT. He is over-tanned and white-haired, gaunt and desiccated like a particularly white-toothed corpse. I foresee his death: His sternum is crushed by an enthusiastic contestant, and a rib punctures his heart. He is dead in a matter of moments, and contestants immediately place bids on his corpse.

Anyway, the first item up for bids today is a trip to Cancun. Zane and Dustin both look like they have just seen a beautiful naked woman. Zane responds by hilariously overbidding. Bobette bids closest and plays “Golden Road,” a game with a succession of prizes, culminating in a Dodge Viper valued at more than $85,000.

Holy crap! That’s an expensive car. I wouldn’t own a car like that in my neighborhood, that’s for sure.

Bobette wins all the prizes! A luggage set, a hot tub, and the Viper. The audience, which has not stopped screaming since the show began, greets this development with animalistic wailing and hooting, like starved hyenas being offered a gazelle. I have to say, I’m pretty excited, too, even though Bobette’s win affects me in no way whatsoever.

Called from the audience to replace Bobette is a guy named Brock, who meets the exact same description as Zane and Dustin. Natalie should have no problem winning the his-and-hers tennis equipment against these tools.

But no! Dustin wins. He is as surprised as I am. He plays “1/2 Off,” a game with $10,000 cash as its ultimate prize. Turns out Dustin is married, despite being no more than 16. His wife is in the audience, surely wondering why her husband was chosen instead of her.

The game involves guessing which item’s displayed price is actually one-half of the real price. This is pretty easy to do. Obviously the electric massager costs more than $20. A moron could win this game. Morons probably DO win it, actually, and frequently.

Moron or not, Dustin wins, and again, I am very happy for him. Ten thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze at! I’ll allow no sneezing at $10,000.

During the commercial break, there is an ad for the Hoveround motorized chair for old people. The commercial features several old people trading lines on the old song “You Made Me Love You.” It’s hilarious. Also: The inventor of the Hoveround is a man named Tom Kruse. Delightful! I’m not old, but I am lazy. Perhaps I will get a Hoveround.

The next contestant summoned is Isabel, an old lady wearing a straw hat. She is at most five feet tall. A treadmill is displayed and described. Bob asks her, “What do you bid?,” and she replies, “For what?” I’m not making that up.

Isabel bids poorly on the treadmill, as you might expect, and Zane wins. He scrambles up out of contestants’ row like a cat that’s been dropped in a swimming pool. He behaves like the sort of 18-year-old who believes he is being hip and funny, which is altogether the wrong attitude to take on a game show. You come across looking like an idiot.

He plays “Push Over” for a folding trailer, whatever that is. Whatever that is, it’s worth more than $7,000. “Push Over” is one of the very short games they play to balance out the longer ones. You get a sequence of digits like 92709437291, and you choose the four-digit sequence out of there that you think is the right price. Zane does it. He dances around like a fool, clearly thinking he is entertaining. It’s a truly embarrassing display. Bob tells him he’s very funny. Sure, Bob, encourage him.

In the Showcase Showdown, Zane spins 85 cents for himself, which does not bode well. Fortunately, Bobette comes through with a dollar! This gets her $1,000 and a bonus spin, which yields nothing. But still, she won, and we’ll never see Zane again except in our nightmares.

The next contestant is our requisite military personnel, Sean. He’s in the Air Force. He is in uniform, of course, as is custom on this show, because otherwise when you tell Bob you’re in the military, he’ll call you a big fat liar. “Oh yeah?” he’ll sneer. “Then why are you out of uniform, ‘soldier’?”

They’re bidding on a refrigerator/freezer. Isabel bids $1, even though she’s only the second bidder. Predictably, Brock bids $2. They both lose, though, and Natalie wins with a bid of $1,251 (it was really $1,349). I am guessing that a refrigerator/freezer has been offered as a prize on every episode of “The Price is Right” for the past 33 years. When they can’t think of what else to feature they probably say, “Oh, heck, just put a refrigerator/freezer out there.”

Natalie plays “Switch,” in which the prize is TWO cars! As if anybody needs two cars. How will she get them home? But the audience, still in a frenzy over Bobette winning that Viper, is delighted beyond all reason. Some of them start engaging in reproductive congress, right there in the studio, so euphoric are they over the proceedings.

“Switch” is a very simple game: They tell you the two prices ($18,151 and $16,110), and you just have to guess whether the prices match the cars they’re currently affixed to or should be switched with each other. Natalie switches ’em, and she’s right! Four games, four winners.

Next to be called to duty from the audience: Kristen, a pretty blonde in a cowboy hat. Everyone bids on a pair of bicycles. Isabel bids $1 again, though this time it’s strategically smart to do so. She still loses. Brock wins the bikes, and we learn he’s there on his senior class trip. The prize? A Ford Focus! They’re playing “Dice Game,” the first game since “Golden Road” that I recognize. You roll a giant die and, if you don’t roll the next number in the price, you guess whether what you rolled is higher or lower than the right number. When he rolls a three, he guesses the correct number will be higher, but he turns out to be wrong. No Ford Focus for you, Brock. Way to ruin our streak, Brock.

Next: Angela, another pretty blonde. She’s in the chump spot, chosen before the sixth game, where if she doesn’t win, she gets no more chances. They’re bidding on a “wine secretary,” a term I have not heard before. It’s like a cupboard for wine, I guess. What’s wrong with a cardboard box? Or a cupboard?

Sean the Air Force guy wins and plays for a new game room. He must feel like a loser, playing in one of the few games today that doesn’t offer a car for a prize. Heck, Natalie was offered TWO cars. The game is “Pick-a-Pair,” in which we meet six household products and Sean has to choose the two that are the same price. One of them is an individual bag of Chips Ahoy. The other is a candy bar. Sean picks them. He’s right; they’ll both run you 55 cents ($1.30 at 7-Eleven). He wins the game room. He doesn’t seem the least bit excited. I can’t blame him, though I would probably fake it better if I were there.

In the Showcase Showdown, we learn that Brock, the kid who just graduated from high school and didn’t win a car (the only loser of the day), is about to go on a Mormon mission! I thought he had that look about him.

Brock: 40 cents. Sean spins 55, enough to beat Brock, but not a great score. He spins again and goes over. Natalie spins 65 cents and wins. Brock goes home the same way he came in: a loser. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have my son come home from “The Price is Right” in a box than without any prizes.

During the break, there’s a commercial starring Wilford Brimley, the world’s oldest, crankiest man. I pity the people who watch “The Price is Right” every day and see nothing but a succession of commercials geared toward old people. It is probably especially depressing if you ARE an old person.

The first showcase has a “theme,” and it’s Things Featuring the Number 34 (for the start of the 34th season). There’s a copy of “Miracle on 34th Street” … which you can watch on your BRAND-NEW TV/DVD PLAYER! Or you can learn all about our 34th president Dwight D. Eisenhower … on a TRIP TO WASHINGTON, D.C.! Or you’ll get plenty of selenium, which is element No. 34 on the periodic table … when we BURY YOU IN CHEMICAL SOLUTIONS USED FOR THE TONING OF PHOTOGRAPHS!

Just kidding on the last one. The third prize is a pickup truck, which holds 34 gallons of gas. I hope they’re giving out $200 bills to fill it up. Natalie bids $21,000 on the showcase, which seems very low to me. I happen to know the truck alone costs that much, and I don’t even like trucks/the people who drive them.

Bobette’s showcase is $1,000 cash, a trip to Tahiti, and a Cadillac convertible, the sixth automobile to be rolled out today. Bobette bids $60,000. This turns out to be $30,000 less than the actual price. Natalie, meanwhile, was only off by $10,000. So Natalie wins! There is a hug between the two ladies, and Bobette shuffles shamefully off the stage while Natalie’s friends and family join her in celebrating. Bob tells us to have our pets sprayed or murdered. As the credits roll, the audience reaches the zenith of its fervent undulations and some members begin to slit the throats of others in the pagan worship of their god, Bob Barker.

My findings: There is something very satisfying and uplifting in seeing people’s happiness over winning money and prizes. On the other hand, this show is loud and clangy, the equivalent of putting a pot over your head and beating it with a hammer for 60 minutes. On the third hand, I’m thinking of buying a Hoveround.

This column is in a similar vein to my "Young and the Restless" column a few weeks ago, of course, though I think this one is more fun, if only because more people have seen "The Price is Right."

"I don't know about you, but I'd rather have my son come home from 'The Price is Right' in a box than without any prizes." This is in reference to the kid who was about to go on a Mormon mission, and it's a dig at something I've heard of melodramatic parents saying: that they'd rather their son returned home from his mission in a box (i.e., dead) than dishonorably (i.e., having been sent home early due to egregious misconduct). I don't know if anyone's ever actually said it -- it's awfully drastic and not even rational (you can repent of sin, but it's hard to overcome being dead) -- but it's the kind of sentiment you hear in stories sometimes. And it made me chuckle to juxtapose it with "The Price is Right," so I kept it.