'Let's Not Make A Deal,' or, Alex Trebek, where have you gone?

The holidays are over. Decorations have been stored. Stockings have been returned to clothes drawers, gifts have been discreetly exchanged or returned, and New Year's resolutions have been (guiltily) broken. And so it's time to cast a look back on some of the events that may have been overlooked in all of the festiveness, good cheer, and glad tidings.

Actually, one event in particular may have escaped your notice: NBC's rollout of a new game show, "Deal or No Deal," during the last weeks of December. The show did well enough for NBC to order new episodes, and, if they air on prime time, it will be, to the best of my knowledge, the only game show on a network's prime-time schedule this spring.

For those of you out there who missed the first set of episodes, the rules are fairly simple. The contestant is faced with 26 attractive young women carrying 26 briefcases; each of which is valued at an amount between a penny and $1 million, although the contestant and audience don't know which briefcase has which value. The contestant picks one of the briefcases, which becomes his or hers. The contestant then proceeds to pick several briefcases, whose values are then revealed - and are, by definition, not the value hidden inside the contestant's briefcase.

Given that information, a mysterious figure known only as The Banker makes offers at predetermined points to buy back the contestant's briefcase at a value based (at least roughly) on his estimation of the probable value assigned to the contestant's case; it is at this point that the eponymous Deal or No Deal question is considered. If the contestant takes the deal, the game ends there; if not, more cases must be opened, thus offering The Banker more perfect information which may either force him to offer more money or allow him to dramatically drop his offer. And that's pretty much it.

There are, it must be said, a number of things to appreciate about the show.

First, appropriate kudos is in order for its work in ratcheting up the mystery quotient attached to bankers. (One wonders whether, after the deal is made, the network could provide an equally mysterious Accountant to help the contestant unravel the tax implications of the windfall.)

Second, "Deal or No Deal" is hosted by Howie Mandel. Many of you who remember Mr. Mandel from his stand-up comic days in the mid 1980s will be glad to find that he has removed the hand-shaped balloon from the top of his head, along with all of his hair. (Someone might want to discreetly suggest to him that perhaps his barber should help Mandel extend this no-hair policy to the soul patch under his chin, but this is a quibble.)

Mandel is, it turns out, an excellent game-show host; he has good rapport with the contestants and the friends and family members they're allowed to bring along, and he's equally good about explaining the stakes to those of us at home and interrupting the action at its height to cut to the inevitable commercial with shtick that says, "Yes, I'd rather keep playing, too, but what can I do? We're all in this against the network together."

Overall, though, "Deal or No Deal" is the apotheosis of a worrying trend in American game shows, at least on the networks: increasing dumbness. When the game shows were invented half a century ago, they were called "quiz shows" and they tested real knowledge and intelligence (when they weren't fixed, that is, as they sometimes were); even a show like "The Price Is Right," perhaps not an intellectual's dream game show, demanded real knowledge of consumer goods and prices. (Imagine what would have happened if the first President Bush had watched more "Price Is Right." Would he have ever been tripped up for being out of touch with what Americans paid for things? Bob Barker, I suspect, would think not.)

We have here, though, a show whose sole skill, as displayed by the contestants, is limited to picking numbers seemingly at random. Although it could be the case that contestants could use probability theory and higher mathematics to guide their choices, not one of them in the episodes so far seems to do so: Instead, they rely on audience encouragement, a vague sense of luck, and generally few if any intelligible factors to make their choices. Sometimes their decisions work out, and sometimes they don't, but the viewer leaves empty-handed either way. This isn't to say that it's not entertaining - spectacles of light and noise can be entertaining - but it wears thin.

The strangest thing about this is that this decline in game-show IQ is hardly the case for American television in general. Admittedly, intelligent shows like "The Sopranos," "Deadwood," and "Rome" are HBO offerings, not found on over-the-air television. But ordinary prime-time network television has been giving us shows like "24," "Gilmore Girls," "Arrested Development," and "My Name Is Earl"- shows that give your mind something of a workout. So why come up with a game show that does so little? Why cater to lowest common denominators when the American viewing audience seems willing to accept more thoughtful fare?

Maybe the audience won't accept it, and diminished ratings when the show returns will be the proof. Until then, though, I have to go; don't tell the family, but there's this one sweater that's just calling out for store credit.

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