Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Whose Price Is It, Anyway?: Drew Carey the Subversive

So much has happened in the world since I last posted to this blog many, many, many moons ago. So what has moved me to actually comment on something?

Drew Carey's ascension to the host spot on The Price Is Right, that's what.

We all have our guilty pleasures. The longest-running game show on American TV is one of my biggies. Whenever I have a weekday off and am at home, I will stop whatever I'm doing at 11 a.m. Eastern Time and plant myself in front of the set to soak up wave after wave of consumerist celebration in one of those places that time forgot: on The Price is Right, it's always the 1970s, after adjusting for inflation. Audience members -- now younger on average than when the show debuted in 1971 -- still shriek, squeal, and jump for joy when announcer Rich Fields (a voice double for the legendary Johnny Olsen) tells them to "COME ON DOWN!" (I swear there is a school somewhere that teaches people these skills.) The show still features a raft of games, some cute, some historical, some strange, designed to test how well consumers know the cost of the things they buy and want. And I still swoon along with the contestants who hear the magic phrase: "You're going to play Plinko for up to FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS!" The whole experience is as corny as the Midwest in summer, and I love every overdone minute of it.

But since comedian Drew Carey became lord of "the happiest place on earth", I've noticed that The Price is Right has gone pomo. Where Bob Barker was earnest in his embrace of Price's hokiness and hucksterism, Carey quietly subverts the very traditions he upholds as host of the show.

Take that phrase "the happiest place on earth," originally used to describe Disneyland. Carey occasionally begins episodes with it. Do Disneyland and The Price is Right have anything in common? If we are to take Carey at these words, they do: they're both fantasylands to which we flock to forget our cares. Barker treated this as an open secret; Carey acknowledges it bluntly.

Then there are those mini-plugs Fields gives to describe the smaller items used in many pricing games. (These, too, apparently have a price: where Olsen always mentioned the product name in his blurbs, most of Fields' are generic, making those that mention the product stand out. No doubt those are in exchange for "promotional consideration.") Every once in a while, Carey will repeat one in a deadpan fashion or make a dry comment about the pitch. (I wish I could remember the borderline suggestive remark he made about one for chocolate syrup.) On today's episode, for instance, after a round of blurbs, Carey remarked about them, "Those are either great product descriptions or bad fortune-cookie fortunes."

They're just a second or two in length, and they're delivered in the same low-key manner that Carey displayed as host of Whose Line Is It Anyway? But the message they deliver is much louder: We, the audience, should laugh at as well as with this parade of materialistic mirth; like the contestants, we're being sold a bill of goods here, but unlike them, we won't have to pay taxes on the haul. Coming from a fan of free markets like Carey, this commentary seems just a little wrong somehow. Or maybe not. In either case, it's made Price interesting in a way it hadn't been with Barker as host.

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