It's 2009: Let's make a deal (again)

CBS, having sacked its long-running soap opera Guiding Light, is now on the verge of bringing back a new run of one of TV's most venerable game shows, Let's Make a Deal.

The selection reveals a lot about our state of mind. TV tried bringing back the show before, including in 1990, when we were in the grip of the last big recession.

Let's Make a Deal, for those too young to remember (or for those who aren't watching Game Show Network at the odd hours when the even odder originals are shown), was a cheap-as-dirt carnival of bartering, aired 1963 to 1976, in which contestants were given options between taking a concealed prize standing before them or a handful of cash they knew to be a sure thing. It's main legacy is the lingering catch phrase: "Do you want what's behind Door Number One, or Door Number Two?" (Posterity tends to forget the third door.)

Like NBC's current Deal or No Deal -- and here's my point: our current economy -- the tension of the game is in the dilemma of choice, and in watching the contestants twist in the wind when their greed or their fear keeps them from taking home the big prize. Bet wrong, and you lose everything. The show is about missed financial opportunities. It runs on regret.

I'll always be partial to the originals. It's not just Monty Hall's regrettable sport jackets, the astoundingly rickety production values that had Monty (father of Joanna Gleason) literally working off of folding card tables, or even the prizes, which are as now hysterically dated as American Tourister and mink coats.

What I really love, in a skin-crawling way, was the way the original audience members dressed up in demeaning costumes, like cowgirls or fairy tale characters, in order to catch Hall's attention and get picked to play. They sold their dignity for a chance at bling, and often, they left the room crushed with a bad case of might-have-beens. That ending, the natural outcome of many such economic gladiator matches, continues as a theme on TV game shows even today.

This iteration, which will be brought to us by American Idol and America's Got Talent producer FremantleMedia (the multinational producer that also bought The Price Is Right), will be slicker than the curtain-bedecked '60s hoe-down, but Monty Hall is reportedly still involved as a guiding force.

Monty's role will be taken by a younger TV presence, and the prize girls will surely look more like pneumatic pleasure devices than the erstwhile clean-as-soap babysitters of the original run. But the show's prevailing sense of doom -- that your financial future depends on not making any foolish risks -- will be the perfect reprise for our bearish times.
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