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How Game Shows Have Inspired American Culture

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Since the TV genre’s popularization in the early 1940’s, game shows have provided a realistic glimpse into the ethos of a certain era while also offering an otherworldly, yet attainable, escape for a mostly middle-class audience. In the comfort of one’s humble living room, audiences are transported into a visually rich and culturally enticing world they might not have had access to otherwise. Charismatic hosts, eager audience members, and bootstrapping contestants set the stage to give onlookers something to strive for (you too, can take home a Mercedes SUV on The Price is Right or win a Caribbean vacation from the Wheel of Fortune.) The recent passing of long-time Jeopardy host Alex Trebek has game show lovers reminiscing on the cultural significance of the decade-spanning favorite, and paying homage to its role in shaping several generation’s ambitions.

The then groundbreaking invention of the television in 1925 would pave the way for thousands of curious, mostly middle-class, viewers to tune into the news, films, and of course, the beloved game show. However, the television set didn’t fully arrive to homes until the mid ’40s just as game shows such as The Newlywed Game, Match Game, and Who Said That? were dominating the airwaves. Not only did these programs provide much-needed comedic relief, they also promoted ideas of the “Nuclear Family”—the oh-so 1950’s ideal of a stable family unit— through quizzes, light-hearted jokes, and deliciously retro fashion. The famed, and often unattainable, “American Dream” was at the forefront of these early programs—enticing participants with cash rewards, expensive cars, and even the chance to show off their marriage. These programs swapped the tedious manual labor that dominated the booming economy of the ‘40s and ’50s with a quirky get-rich-quick scheme that was so craved in an era of overconsumption and materialism.

With an excess of 30% of Americans tuning into game shows in the early 1960s, these programs went far beyond promoting ideas of the “American Dream.” Retro classics like Let’s Make a Deal and What’s My Line? provided audiences with a glimpse into a life that was simultaneously unattainable but wholly tangible. Take The Price is Right, the multi-generational favorite that debuted in the ‘70s and features contestants guessing the prices of everyday merchandise such as washing machines and paper towels. TPIR encourages audience interaction—catch a loyal watcher exuberantly shouting out prices from the comfort of their couch before then host Bob Barker proclaimed them. What TPIR in particular provided onlookers was the perfect dose of imagination and reality while also toying with the idea of accessibility—if John from LA can quickly guess the price of an outdated microwave, why can’t I?

Despite a decline in popularity over the last two decades, viewers still flock to reruns of Supermarket Sweep and are sure to tune into new celebrity centric specials: most notably the infamous Kardashian-West vs Jenner showdown on Family Feud. Kim, Kanye, and the rest of the West fam took the stage decked out in the latest Yeezy collection to spar with Kris, Kendall, and the Jenner clan. What ensued was a night of hilarity, lightheartedness, and subtle fashion moments that left viewers eagerly anticipating the next Yeezy drop.

In recent years, game shows have shifted from promoting themes of Americana that dominated the ‘50s to highlighting our celebrity obsessed culture and entertaining our immense love for everything vintage, retro, and sentimental. Tune into a 1950s episode of Password for a glimpse of vintage icons like Betty White or watch a 2019 nostalgically informational episode of Jeopardy, filled with questions covering topics from pop-culture to ancient history and everything in-between. With game shows, you’ll surely never run out of content, jokes, and mindless entertainment.

Game show hosts, particularly women, have embraced an over-the-top, often gaudy, aesthetic that perfectly matches with the otherworldly energy of their programs. Vanna White, longtime co-host of The Wheel of Fortune, is notorious for her extensive wardrobe, having never repeated a gown over the span of her 37 years on the show. White perfectly plays into the ultra-glam, high-camp world that is the norm for female hosts, harkening back to the stringent and glamorous beauty standards of the 1950s. In May of 2020, the host teamed up with famed American designer Bob Mackie for a week-long collaboration of custom dresses. Each night, the host stepped out in an even more stunning gown than the last, marked by lots of sequins, asymmetry, and ruching. Millions of Americans tune in nightly at 7:30 to watch White, in her glammed-up glory, turn the Wheel of Fortune into a quasi-runway, upholding game shows’ commitment to providing tantalizing escapism.

The instantly recognizable game show has been a ubiquitous reference for designers wanting to toy with themes of Americana. Take Jeremy Scott: The Kansas City, Missouri born designer known for his kitschy pop-culture filled designs. For Scott, and many from small town America, game shows offer an exaggerated glimpse into a world of glitz, glamour, and achievement. Scott proved just that on the runway of Moschino in the form of a The Price is Right themed extravaganza for Fall/Winter 2019. As Bella Hadid, Adut Akech, and Irina Shayk strutted down the runway in dramatic ‘80s bouffant wigs, models at the center of the set showed off “prizes”—an overpriced pair of skis, a grandiose refrigerator, and naturally, a flaming red Porsche spinning on a turnstile. In true Jeremy Scott fashion, the designer displayed a captivating spectacle while also portraying the vibrant escapism and lightheartedness that game show references bring about. And I mean, what’s better than Kaia Gerber in an overly campy ‘80s two-piece set?

Scott also previously referenced the beloved TV genre for the brand in his equally over the top Fall/Winter 2001 collection. Models in the same done-up, ultra-glam aesthetic showed off their “winnings” for jaded fashion editors: a one million dollar check, a sprawling new sofa, and the latest blender. Aside from the obvious hilarity, Scott’s two ventures into the world of game shows proves the reference’s knack for toying with themes of Americana and escapism, especially among those who come from small towns. Almost everyone, even the most uppity fashion editor, can relate to wanting that fancy refrigerator and newest vacuum cleaner, right?

Millions of eager audience members have welcomed hosts such as Vanna White, Steve Harvey, and the late Alex Trebek into their homes to provide a much-needed sense of normality, comedy, and ambitious hope. No matter what is occurring politically or socially, game shows have long provided an escape from harsh realities while also reflecting the overwhelming aspiration in our society with feel-good stories that are guaranteed to pull at your heart strings. As an inquisitive contestant on Jeopardy would say, “I’ll take ‘iconic’ for ,000, Alex.”

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