Take Two

Temptation: The New Sale Of The Century

No Sale

Temptation: The New Sale Of The Century misplaced the fantasy that fueled its game.

By John Teti • February 27, 2013

Let’s design your own game show! First, you’ll need a good game. Come up with a concept and playtest the hell out of it. Your game needs to be complex and varied enough for people to watch it over and over again. It also needs to be simple enough for a host to explain in 30 seconds. The game must possess some sort of “play along” factor for the viewing audience. It has to be visually interesting, of course, and if you find a way to work in a sponsor mention or two, that helps. Oh, and the whole thing needs to fit tidily into a half-hour package.

Amid the tiny fraternity of game show producers, there’s little shame in recycling old ideas, and the previous paragraph is why. Inventing a decent game show, let alone a great one, is so challenging that once you’ve found a formula that works, you’re inclined to get some repeat use out of it. Don’t call it laziness; call it efficiency. Recycling doesn’t have a bad track record, either. Bob Barker’s The Price Is Right and Alex Trebek’s Jeopardy! are both remakes that surpassed the popularity of their already-successful forebears.

In this occasional series, Take Two, I’ll be looking at game shows that have been reborn and examining how a new production can change the way a game is played—and the way it’s watched. Rule tweaks, presentational changes, or cultural shifts can infuse a moribund idea with fresh excitement. They can also turn a once-glorious machine of competitive glory into a faltering mess of dollar signs and sound effects. Temptation: The New Sale Of The Century is just such a mess.

In the United States, Sale Of The Century debuted in 1969 but is best known for the 1980s edition hosted by Jim Perry. The Sale quiz is ultra-stingy—contestants receive a measly $5 for every trivia question that they answer correctly, harking back to quiz shows from the golden age of radio. But that’s where the “sale” part comes in. During breaks in the question-and-answer action, Perry transforms from a quizmaster into a crafty huckster, tempting the contestants to buy, say, a $2,000 vacation in Aruba for a measly sawbuck.

The narrative that emerges is a classic hubris tale. Whenever a greedy contestant blows score money on some shiny bauble, he’s essentially saying to the other contestants, “I can willfully chip away at my own score and still kick your ass.” It’s a show of confidence and even mild disrespect, and it produces a certain personal tension. Everybody is civil and smiley on Sale, but on occasion, you can tell that the players sort of hate each other.

The player who wins the match gets a crack at the show’s most lavish prizes. The endgame of Perry’s Sale changed a few times during the show’s run, but I’m not going to get into all the rule changes here; if you’re interested, the show’s Wikipedia entry is frighteningly detailed, as Wikipedia entries tend to be. The first and simplest version of the endgame essentially offered players a choice: You can use your score money to “buy” a prize and retire from the show, or you can decline the prize and return as champion, facing two new contestants and a bigger potential payoff. A one- or two-day champ might be offered something modest like a video camera—nobody took the video camera—but if the winning streak lasted for another week or so, suddenly the champ is playing for a luxury cruise, or an exotic car, or every freaking prize on stage plus a five-figure cash jackpot.

In the clip above, future minor TV celebrity Mark DeCarlo—he would go on to host Studs!plays for “the lot” after turning down some $60,000 in cash and prizes. Here we see all the dramatic arcs of Sale converge. DeCarlo’s quest to become maximum champion has played out over two weeks. The final match has taken 20 minutes or so, with a number of lead changes. And then that game show staple, the lightning round, brings it all to a head within 60 seconds. Sale was always building tension in one timeframe or another, whether it was weeks or seconds. The host, for his part, knew how to milk it. Nobody did a speed round better than Perry, and this clip is an exemplar, as his smooth question readings and staccato yelps of “Right!” mark the beat of the players’ shifting fortunes.

Perry’s Sale left the air in 1989, and it was 18 years before the game returned to American TV as the syndicated Temptation: The New Sale Of The Century. The look of the show was updated—whereas the set of Sale looks like it took place in Donald Trump’s spaceship, the contestants of Temptation seem to be killing time in a well-appointed mall store. Maybe a Brookstone.

Temptation sticks to the spirit of its predecessor in a broad sense. But the changes in Temptation betray a misunderstanding of what made Perry’s version sing. The missteps start with the speed round. Instead of one climactic minute-long speed round, Temptation sprinkles three 30-second rapid-fire rounds throughout the show. By a certain math—the math I imagine the producers used when they were developing the show—this gives you 50 percent more white-knuckle action than the old version.

In practice, that doesn’t compute. A minute is just enough time for some semblance of a storyline to develop. A player can bungle the question about state capitals but recover with Shakespeare and anatomy. Leads can shift; contestants can go on runs. In 30 seconds, you can barely get started. It’s like the difference between watching three stand-up comics do five-minute sets or one comic doing 20 minutes. Sure, the choppier set will still give you some comedy, but only the 20-minute guy will have the time to develop a through-line.

Still, Temptation seems convinced that the pupu platter approach to game design is just as good as a full meal. Beyond the speed round, the show’s structure is a hodgepodge of mini-games, the overall effect of which is to lend the proceedings a jerky rhythm. It takes Rossi Moreale almost a full minute to explain how the show’s “Knock Out” round works. If your favorite part of family game night is listening to Dad read the rules off the underside of the game box, then Temptation is the show for you.

There are times where the game feels entirely broken. In one episode—here’s a link; I can’t embed this clip—there’s a speed round all about beverages—contestants simply need to ring in and say whether the beverage in question is “carbonated” or “flat.” Set aside for a moment the fact that the writers seem to be lifting material from a Saturday Night Live “Celebrity Jeopardy!” sketch. The problem here is more basic: Note how quickly the leading contestant, Mark, realizes that he can simply ring in as soon as Rossi Moreale starts talking. The questions on Sale were written so that aggressive contestants could guess where they were leading—Perry would often say “Good anticipation!” when a player rang in early with a correct answer—but coming in early carried a risk. Temptation’s this-or-that round eliminates that risk. The players always know where the question is going, which turns the show into a game of podium-buzzer whack-a-mole.

If Temptation had seen a second season with a capable producer at the helm, these problems could have been fixed. Temptation has a more intractable flaw: Its delusions of grandeur weren’t grand enough. Part of the Sale ethos was the notion that winning players could buy their way into a higher echelon of living. The prizes on the show were curated from a luxurious realm that your average Joe and Jane American never encounter. Sale’s prize coordinators saw no reason to feature a La-Z-Boy when they could give away a posh leather chair with a speaker system built in—a bit of materialist fantasy torn from the front-of-book section of a 1978 Esquire.

The reward for winning on Sale was a glimpse at an exotic lifestyle. In this clip, Sale champion Alice Conkwright heads to center stage after winning her final game and securing the jackpot. Her litany of goodies oozes with the aspirational excess of the Wall Street ’80s. The camera is Swedish, and the car is German. The entertainment center is glossy black, the color of choice for the yuppie electronics hound. The gold bars are a 24-karat “symbol of success.” The fur coat (another sign of the times) is from Dicker And Dicker Of Beverly Hills.

Temptation’s luxury purses are rentals, sourced from the “Netflix of designer handbags.” The trips are furnished by Orbitz, and the mattress is from Tempur-Pedic. It’s not so much that the prizes are cheaper (although they are) but rather that they’re so pedestrian. Temptation is devoid of the fantasy that made Sale’s “bargains” ludicrous. Sale’s producers browsed the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog; on Temptation, they browsed the front page of Amazon.com.

Temptation’s mistake was to take Sale’s shopping conceit seriously, when it was a joke all along. Where Sale mocks its prize descriptions with goofy, middle-school-pageant-level skits, Temptation regards a mass-produced bed frame with the soft-focus televisual reverence typically reserved for royalty and Barbara Walters. Without Sale’s knowing tension between upper class and lower class, Temptation’s shopping just feels like shopping. Not so tempting after all.

Postscript: As if it sprang from an alternate universe, the Australian Temptation, which debuted in 2005, got everything right that the American Temptation got wrong. (Sale Of The Century was always more popular down under—the original Aussie version ran for 21 years.) It’s one of the best-produced game shows of the past decade, and I’ve embedded an episode above.

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39 Responses to “No Sale”

  1. “The camera is German, as is the car.” OK, you got me, I’ll check out the clip to see what kind of cool German rides the show was giving away. But so help me if it’s a VW Rabbit…

    • John Teti says:

      For some reason your comment prompted me to realize that no, the camera isn’t German. It’s Swedish. The car is definitely German, though! And pretty nice for the time.

  2. fieldafar says:

    I miss the days of tuning into Temptation (and Sale of the Century) at 7pm weekdays. The Australian version, that is.

    The kind of prizes that can be won of both game shows, which range from kitchenware and vacuum cleaners to top-line Italian cars and actual gold bars… it gave contestants (and viewers) a half-hour look into the high life, which Teti touched on here. 
    Combine that with the quiz aspect of the show, culminating in an often-suspenseful final round where contestants try to answer as many questions as possible in 60 seconds, meant that the show was also great for the viewer to play along. 

    Watching the clips of the American attempt at Temptation however… it was clear that the producers had no clue what they were doing, it was a mess. The host lacked charisma, the prizes were terrible, the music package was underwhelming, etc. etc.

    While Teti says that US Temptation “[took] Sale’s shopping conceit seriously”, I felt that they just didn’t give a damn about the whole thing.

    • Staggering Stew Bum says:

      For me, Aussie Temptation was a let down becauseSale of the Century was so iconic for so long. The original Sale was hosted by Tony Barber who was such a pro, then later on we had Glenn Ridge who was similarly awesome (and had a good sense of humour, evidenced by his appearance on The Late Show in the ‘Glengarry Glenn Ridge‘ skit…. I still use “fellas, language, please” every chance I get twenty years later). Things started going down hill when they decided to have half a minute of ‘fast money’ halfway through the show, when it was better just to have the one minute of it at the end. When you start messing with the tried and tested formula in a misguided attempt to keep something fresh whether it needs it or not, there will be trouble.

      Then they rebooted it as Temptation, I didn’t like the Ed Phillips guy, Livinia Nixon was everywhere and I was sick of her. Game shows live and die on the strength of the host(s), and these two didn’t have the charm, charisma and chemistry like the team ups of Tony Barber and Alyce Platt, or Glenn Ridge and Nicky Buckley. Plus I think all of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire saturation at the time made me sick of quiz shows, so I never really watched Temptation. It also may have made a difference that by the time the show returned to the airwaves I had long since made my way out in to the world and was no longer going to watch it with my family, when half the fun of Sale was playing along with them. Playing along with a TV quiz show at home by yourself is kind of pathetic. Playing a video game at home by yourself and swearing at the TV, however, is a far more noble pursuit.

  3. Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

    Never heard of any of these shows before this, but damn the original sounds pretty awesome. Gameshows ought to be more fucking brutal if you ask me, and what better way to do that than to piss away the money that you’ve won before you’ve even won it. That’s such a brilliant mechanic. 
    I mean, Jeopardy is cool, but it’s pretty placid.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

      Reading this article had me reflecting on what an undeserved moniker ‘Jeopardy!’ is. Nothing about the show really conveys danger of even the mildest sort. I mean sure, you’re in Jeapordy of losing your money, but it’s money you didn’t have in the first place. And besides, I hardly think the WASP-y, Bridge Club temperament of the proceedings can really justify the exclamation point.

      • Bad Horse says:

        But if you go negative, then you owe the producers, and they mean business. Trebek does not forgive…or forget.

    • Dikachu says:

      The original was pretty awesome, and it’s a shame that they don’t show it on GSN.

  4. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

    I actually bought a Donald Trump spaceship model kit at a Brookstone. Talk about an Ourobouros.

  5. Wine & Pop says:

    It speaks to the quality of the Australian Temptation that instead of boring stacks of lots and lots of money, they give the winners SOLID GOLD BARS.

  6. The British version was something of a legend in sheer naffness. Perhaps this had something to do with the triumphant voice-over that opened the show…

    “Now, from Norwich… It’s the Quiz of the Week!!”

    • Hunsweasel says:

      I’m imagining that voice-over with an “A-HA!” at the end.  It being from Norwich, and all.

    • Captain Internet says:

      I doubt the prizes were anything compared to those on offer in Bullseye in 1983- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6oYMmD0G2Q&t=19m32s

  7. WOWReallykotaku

    sorry, but wtf does his have to do with videogames

  8. The_Misanthrope says:

    Ugh, Studs was the worst.  Granted, I’m not a particular fan of the dating show genre (although I do have an odd affinity for Blind Date), often finding them either too bland and safe or too skeezy.  But Studs was like Love Connection, but with a proto-Jersey Shore feel.  

    • Hunsweasel says:

      Why is it that Blind Date worked and almost nothing else of its type did?  Is Roger Lodge’s mystical ability to somehow transcend all of his douche signifiers?  Could it be the so-bad-they’re-funny pop-ups?

      Seriously, I loathe pretty much every other show of that genre but if I’m cruising past a Blind Date rerun I will stop surfing and settle in.

      • The_Misanthrope says:

        It was probably the pop-ups; They were kind of like a running MST3k commentary on the artificiality of the date and the motives of the daters.

      • I think the pop-ups are what save it. I saw one episode where a woman went on a bit of a racist rant about Persians, and the pop-up “Jenny doesn’t know Shiite about Persians” defused the awfulness of the entire situation.

        Most similar shows have the panel watching on close-circuit. When the panel is making off-the-cuff remarks, they’re usually worse than the people they’re mocking.

    • Effigy_Power says:

      It did spawn the “Screwballz” sketch on Mr Show, didn’t it?

  9. In relation to the ‘Carbonated or Flat Drink’ buzzer situation, there’s a special place in hell for game show contestants who buzz in while the host is still talking.

    Learn some goddam manners you plebes.

  10. Dikachu says:

    You wanna talk bad remakes, you could go on for days about Whammy: The new Press Your Luck.  They basically failed in every conceivable way they could have, trying to recreate the magic of the original show (which is maybe a close #2 in my list of favorite classic game shows, right behind the 70s Match Game). 

    Not only was the show way too gimmicky (“double whammies” dropped shit on your head? Isn’t that Nickelodeon’s realm?), but the fucking board was a total mess.  One of the great things about the original game was the board was somewhat predictable, even in the post-Michael Larson era.  Someone with really quick reflexes and good pattern recognition actually had an advantage, rather than just having to rely on dumb luck.

    Sadly, just like classic slapstick/silly comedies, the era of good, exciting game shows is long gone in this country.

    • PaganPoet says:

      You ever watch RuPaul’s Drag Race? They do a parody of The Match Game called The Snatch Game every season. Drag queens impersonating celebrities on the panel. Some of them are hilarious (Season 2’s Britney Spears played by the drag queen Tatianna, and Season 5’s Little Edie Bouvier played by Jinkz Monsoon) and most of them are cringe-inducingly bad. Still, it’s good TV!

  11. Memo2Self says:

    What I remember about the original 1969 version was that it was hosted, unexpectedly, by Jack Kelly, who played Bart Maverick opposite James Garner.  It was unexpected in the sense that it was unusual to see a real actor host a game show rather than a “game-show host.”  And I remember that he was very uncomfortable in the role (“So THIS is what it’s come down to,” I imagined him moaning), and remarkably smarmy, even by game-show host standards (“Well, hey there, little lady, you just won yourself ten dollars!”).

  12. I’d love to see this feature cover “Classic Concentration” (the remake hosted by Alex Trebek.)

  13. JennaTeti says:

    I wish I enjoyed baking as much as the Kitchenaid model at 1:21 in the second video appears to…

  14. Citric says:

    The fact that there is a “Netflix for designer handbags” is sad. The fact that this is somehow thought to be a prize worth winning on a gameshow is the depression icing on the sadness cake.