Wheel Of Fortune

(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Noel Murray checks out the highest-rated syndicated game show for decades, Wheel Of Fortune. Next week, Todd VanDerWerff drops in on The Oprah Winfrey Show.)

I remember when Wheel Of Fortune lasted an hour. I remember when Chuck Woolery was the host. I remember when after each puzzle, the contestants would spend their money on prizes they’d select from a room full of merchandise, which the camera would pan across ever so slowly, back and forth. I remember that when the contestants ran out of prizes they could afford, they’d “put the rest on a gift certificate.” I remember when Vanna White had to turn the letters, rather than just touching them. (I also remember White playing Venus in the cheesy TV movie Goddess Of Love, which David Letterman made fun of for weeks on Late Night. That was around the same time that pre-Wheel semi-nude photos of White started making the rounds.) I remember Pat Sajak’s late-night talk show, with his sidekick Dan Miller, who’d been the local news anchor for most of my youth in Nashville. I remember the “I’m a Wheel-watcher” song. I remember when my pre-verbal son became fascinated by the show, which we thought was encouraging until we took him to be evaluated for a possible autistic spectrum disorder and one of the first questions the diagnostician asked was, “Is he interested in game shows, like Wheel Of Fortune?” I remember when my Mom tried out for the show, and made it past the first round before falling short in her practice game. I remember spending many, many dinners—from when I was living with my parents to when I became a head-of-household myself—watching Wheel, with everyone in the family trying to obey the house-rule not to blurt out an answer before everybody had a chance to solve. (Instead we’d say, “Oh, I got it,” and then sit there smugly over our plates of ham and broccoli casserole.)

But I don’t really watch Wheel Of Fortune anymore.

For a while, it was part of the rotation of game shows we’d watch during dinner. We’d do Wheel Of Fortune for a few months, then Jeopardy, then Cash Cab, then Who Wants To Be A Millionaire—sticking with each show until we got bored, or until a new show came along. But unless my son shows a sudden interest in Wheel again (as he still does from time to time, though never for very long), I don’t anticipate it re-entering our rotation. It’s still a solid show, but I’ve watched it way too much.

The only real problem with Wheel Of Fortune these days—and it’s not exactly a major problem—is that the contestants have also watched it way too much. Every now and then, an aggressive player shows up and dominates, but for the most part everyone lays back and plays strategically, ticking off the most common letters and buying every vowel they can until the board’s almost full. Then, they solve. It’s the game show equivalent of pre-shot-clock basketball, or tennis without rallies. It’s so rare in fact to see players acting on intuition that when a woman recently solved a long puzzle after only one letter…

…some people wondered how she cheated. But when I showed the puzzle to my wife, she figured it out too. Granted, my wife knew in advance it could be done, and wasn’t dealing with the pressure of a game show, but still: simple logic and a working knowledge of common phrases could lead a lot of people to the right answer.

I don’t know what I’d do to improve Wheel Of Fortune, and I’m sure the producers don’t think it needs improving. So many game shows that were on the air and going strong when Wheel debuted in 1975 are long gone now, while Wheel remains a syndication staple. The show may be dull, but it’s not unpleasant. Tonight’s episode, for example, filled the time with more than just the game, as the producers have learned to do so well. The episode was full of subtle and not-so-subtle product plugs, from Sony cameras to The Green Hornet, the latter of which sponsored a wedge on the wheel and had a lengthy trailer shown after the second Toss-Up. Sajak ran the show smoothly as always, shifting easily from Toss-Ups to the traditional puzzles. (The Toss-Ups are one of Wheel’s better latter-day innovations, squeezing more game into the game, even if their main purpose is just to decide whom Pat will talk to first and who will get first spin.) And White got her moments in the spotlight, both in a “Vanna For A Day” promotion and in her closing chit-chat with Sajak. There’s a rhythm to Wheel Of Fortune that’s very soothing, from the cheery video backdrops behind the contestants to the progression through Prize Puzzles and Jackpot Wedges and Mystery Wedges, all while contestants strategize about whether they should use their Wild Card or Free Play tokens.

I also appreciate that Wheel contestants are selected as much for their skill at the game as for their looks and personality. My frustration with most prime-time game shows—beyond their interminable pacing—is that they like the contestants to be “characters,” as a way to justify spending 40% of an episode getting to know the contestant and only 60% (or less) playing the damn game. I watched a couple of episodes of Minute To Win It over the Christmas break, and that show’s practically Queen For A Day with the way each contestant is asked to tell what they’re going to do with the money if they win and how they’re going to make their struggling family’s dreams come true. (Then, inevitably, we watch them fail. Real fun.)

So no, there’s nothing wrong with Wheel Of Fortune per se. The producers add a new wrinkle or two every season—switching out wedges, for example, or upping the money values—but the game is still Hangman. It’s just that after you’ve played Hangman for a while, you’re ready to play something else. Like maybe Hangman with a shot clock.