March 23rd, 2005


Merit Wins Again

I've often wondered about the disparity in popularity and prize money between Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Jeopardy. It seems unjust to me that a show where the contestants are asked questions pilfered from the 4th Grade Scholastic Aptitude test has a top prize of a million dollars while a show with difficult questions requiring a broad knowledge base, whether gained from reading an Almanac, studying whatever you can, or having the rare knack of soaking up every little nugget of info comes your way only offered (before the revocation of the 5-day rule and that guy took them to the cleaners) something in the neighborhood of 100K. And that is't even guaranteed - unlike Millionaire, where you know you're getting a mil if you answer the final question, you only got as much as you accumulated throughout the show, and could still blow it all on Final Jeopardy, beating the other two but only walking home with a buck.

Jeopardy is a solo operation: everything that player gets they got on their own. On Millionaire, three chances are offered to give the player a little help from someone else, be it a friend with a fast internet connection, the mouthbreathers in the audience, or the production staff. Hell, the players on Millionaire barely have competition. While the Jeopdardy contestants are required not only to know the answers, but know them faster than their opponents, the chosen ones on Millionaire aren't competing against anyone (beyond that first speed round thing) and have days to hem and haw over their final answer. It's as though they aren't playing a game at all, but waiting around to see if they get given money.

And yet, Millionaire, in its prime at least, was exponentially more popular than Jeopardy. Why? I have a couple of thoughts on that, but they all seem to boil down to the value of merit, or, as so brilliantly stated in The Incredibles: everybody is special is another way of saying nobody is.

A sadly prevalent attitude of our time is that those who achieve have, without question, a sense of superiority about themselves and their achievement. I hate those folks on Jeopdardy with their booksmarts and all, whadda they think, they're better than me? Maybe they are, maybe they're not, but going on a game show to use your accomplishments (in this case, knowledge) to try to win money doesn't assign a superiority complex to these contestants any more than someone who has worked hard to achieve a level of aptitude in any endeavor trying to use it to their benefit. It's more a statement about the the accuser than the accused - do you not think you're as good as they?

What better for a society of also-rans than a show that panders to the "everyone gets an A in ______ class so nobody feels bad" mentality where the audience can sit at home snorting to themselves about how this is so easy, anybody can do it (and perhaps with a hypocritical sense superiority, bashing a contestant for missing a question "any idiot" could get). And once the people who are just as mundane as the audience find themselves in a pickle, they pull from the community of the mundane for help. They're not better than you. They need you. Not like those snobs on Jeopardy. They know answers to questions about topics I've never heard of. And they never ask for help. Who do they think they are?

And so, the If I were to go as far as to compare going on Jeopardy and going on Millionaire to life, work and our societal value of each, I'd sum it up thusly: work hard, do your best, reach a level of excellence above and beyond the norm and you may or may not cash in big, but you will earn the resentment of those who amble through life with no such effort or desire. Or, you can draft in the middle of the pack, with no real ambition or ability, rely on others to help you through a jam, and be assured money.

I'll save the thoughts about the American Dream and what the Carnegies of the world would think about all this.

Why am I devoting so many minutes to a topic that is so five minutes ago? A few months ago, thanks to my TiVo, I took my first foray into network reality shows, and have become a devotee of The Amazing Race. I normally stick to my cable reality shows: Real World, Osbournes, American Casino, [time period] House, etc, and most of which are situation-reality rather than competitive-reality (with the exception of the Real World/Road Rules Challenge, but that's a whole different beast altogether). While I haven't watched much of The Apprentice, never seen Survivor or Big Brother, I can say without hesitation that The Amazing Race is the Best Reality Show Ever Made. Why? It's the Jeopardy of reality.

The Amazing Race is all about the race. You run a good race? You win. You keep coming in first and everybody hates you for it? There's nothing they can do except try harder to beat you. Sure certain things beyond the racers' control come into play, like Kris and Jon losing the whole magilla last year due to a poorly timed railroad crossing, a flight delay, or a bus breakdown. All in all, the racers race, using every available skill, talent and ability; seizing every opportunity or advantage; doing what it takes to win.

No tribal council decides whether or not a player's attitude is tantamount to their ability, or that they have committed the cardinal sin of reality TV by intimidating the other players with their skill, or that they've been mean or rude or god forbid shady. You can think you're better than the others or feel a bond with them, but at the end of each leg of the race, whoever gets there first gets first place and whoever comes in last gets the boot.

And the most refreshing news of it is: the best team plays for a million. As I understand from the Survivor-watching crowd, the show is going down hill fast. Millionaire is barely on TV anymore. And yet, The Amazing Race is going strong, and Jeopardy finally was able to reward a hard worker with the money he earned. Perhaps we have turned a corner. Winning may again be in vogue.
  • Current Mood
    thoughtful thoughtful