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.