The 32nd through 23rd Greatest Game Shows of All Time

"The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time," airing Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights on Game Show Network at 10 pm EST/9 pm CST for a couple more weeks, marched from the low-30s into the low-20s in last week's episodes.

Number 32 was "Tic Tac Dough," the late-1970s/1980s version of a late-1950s game, moderated by the man with the greatest game show host name since Guy Smiley, Wink Martindale. Based, of course, on the simple pencil game of Tic Tac Toe, "Tic Tac Dough" had the common two-contestant format involving the answering of trivia questions. Contestants chose categories from a three by three grid of TV screens, with a correct answer earning them an "X" or an "O," placed in an attempt to get three across, similar to that other Tic Tac Toe game show, "Hollywood Squares" (as well as in Tic Tac Toe itself).

The episode featured in the countdown was one in the string of episodes with champion Lt. Thom McKee, winner of an ultimate $317,000--the most ever won in a syndicated game show until Ken Jennings won his $2 million on "Jeopardy" a couple of years ago.

Persisting in its refusal or inability (which one is not clear) to air any complete episodes of 1950s game shows, GSN's #31 game show, "You Bet Your Life," was treated with the voiceover and still photo treatment accorded to several shows thus far. The legendary Groucho Marx of Marx Brothers fame hosted this show that was at least as much a showcase for his comedic interactions with the contestants as it was a game of any kind. Two contestants answered questions posed by Groucho for modest cash prizes, with the twist of a "secret word" (different in every episode) that if uttered by a contestant earned them a bonus prize. Although simple by today's standards, and "small money" in nature (as most early-1950s games were), "You Bet Your Life" was a pioneer game show.

"Card Sharks" was the #30 greatest game show. Based on a simple high-low playing card guessing game, this show appeared twice in the late-1970s/1980s, once from 1978-81 hosted by Jim Perry, again from 1986-89 hosted by Bob Eubanks. The game play was two-part: first, the two contestants answered questions drawn from polls, guessing how many people out of a hundred replied affirmatively to a particular question (e.g., how many teenage girls continued to go out with a boy that their parents told them not to keep seeing, or how many women would ask their mother-in-law to pay a phone bill that she racked up while visiting); then, the other contestant decided whether they thought that estimate was too high or too low. In the second part, the contestant winning the first part guessed whether the next card in a series would be higher or lower than the card showing, winning cash as they went.

Numbers 29 and 28 were both voiceovers, with #29 being "Scrabble" and #28 being "The $64,000 Question." "Scrabble" was a 1980s game based on the venerable board game, hosted by Chuck Woolery. "$64,000" ranks surprisingly low on the countdown, considering that it is perhaps the most influential game show of all time. This mid- to late-1950s game was the first ever "big money" game; prior game shows had dealt only in denominations ranging in the $10s and $100s. "$64,000" was also the first mega-popular game show, becoming a national sensation and ranking as the #1 show in America for its first season in 1955-56 (as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" would do over forty years later).

"The $64,000 Question" also gave "Millionaire" the template for its game play. "$64,000" contestants answered increasingly more valuable questions, starting at one dollar and doubling with each question until reaching the eponymous plateau (a key difference is that on "$64,000" all questions were from the same general category). The show also helped establish the elements of suspense used in later big-money shows. Upon reaching the $8,000 level, contestants were placed in "isolation booths" to shut out distractions (but mainly to ratchet up the suspense and anxiety, a tactic also used in the similar "Twenty-One"). Although "The $64,000 Question" was not itself implicated, it was a victim of the great quiz show scandal of the late-1950s, which swept all of the big-money game shows (and pretty much all game shows) off of network television for several years due to the cheating and fixes that took place on just a few of them.

"Win Ben Stein's Money," the popular Comedy Central game show from the 1990s, came in at number 27. This game had a unique twist: Ben Stein (former Nixon speechwriter and, more famously, the teacher in a legendary cameo in the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"), the nominal host of the game, also served as a contestant. After moderating an opening round in which three contestants faced off to questions in categories with quirky names like "Takes a Catholic'n and Keeps on Tickin'," "Son of a Ditch," and "After Bill Got the Job with the Florist, They Called Him Sweet William," Stein himself faced off against the two higher scoring contestants in a second round moderated by sidekick Jimmy Kimmel in one of his first TV jobs. The leading contestant after round two confronted the erudite Stein directly in a final round not unlike the final round in "Family Feud" where the two answer the same set of ten questions to see who got the most right (and in which, unlike "Feud," they served not as teammates but as opponents).

The "winning Ben Stein's money" element stemmed from the fact that any money that the winning contestant earned supposedly came from a pot that belonged to Stein. The credits carefully explained--in fine print, natch--that the money was not actually Stein's, but was fronted by the producers, although Stein's remuneration for each episode was presumably paid in the form of any money that remained.

Number 26, the current NBC game show "Deal or No Deal," was given only voiceover and still photo treatment. If the countdown's sequencing wasn't already suspect, the fact that this show ranks higher than "The 64,000 Question," "You Bet Your Life," and even "Tic Tac Dough" ought to put any doubts to rest. And that is all I am going to say about that.

"Password Plus" (a.k.a. "Super Password") earned the countdown's mid-point ranking at #25. This was the last version of "Password" (from the early-1980s) that longtime host Allen Ludden moderated before his death in 1981 (the original, which ran from 1961-67 and 1971-75, surely will show up in the higher reaches of the countdown). After Ludden's passing, Bill Cullen then Tom Kennedy assumed hosting duties. "Password"'s game play, which has become as well-known as any game's, involved two pairs of contestants (each pair consisting of one celebrity and one non-celebrity), one of which gave clues while the other had to guess what word was being described. Alternating, the contestants guessed five words that were all clues in turn to another word (the "password"). The episode featured in the countdown, for example, had the words "loyal," "Indian," "friend," "lone," and "ranger" as clues for the password "Tonto." The "plus" in "Password Plus" was a bonus round in which one member of the winning team gave clues to the other for a series of words starting with ten consecutive letters of the alphabet.

The #24 game show was "Win, Lose, or Draw," the late-1980s game based partly on charades, partly on the then-popular board game "Pictionary." Hosted by Bert Convy then Robb Weller in the syndicated version, Vicki Lawrence in the NBC network version, "Win, Lose, and Draw" engaged against each other two three-person teams of two celebrities and one non-celebrity (with one male team and one female team, each attired in sharp-looking matching windbreakers). The game play was refreshingly low-tech in an era of one-upsmanship in terms of bells, whistles, electronics, and gizmos in game boards and game show sets: on a simple set decorated like a common living room, individual contestants stood at an easel of poster paper and drew clues (strictly nonverbal) for a word to be guessed in time by their teammates. The interaction between the "artist" and his or her teammates was raucous and exactly the same as in a parlor game of charades. The episode featured in the countdown ended in a pillow fight (using the couch pillows on that living room set) between Betty White, Annie Potts, Burt Reynolds (co-creator of the show), Dom DeLuise, and host Convy.

"The game where knowledge is king and Lady Luck is queen" ranked at #23 on GSN's countdown. I'm talking, of course, about the 1970s/80s game "The Joker's Wild." This was a popular game originally shown on CBS in the mid-1970s and then in syndication from the late-1970s through the mid-1980s. It represented a comeback for host Jack Barry, who had not had a long-term hosting stint since being implicated as the host of "Twenty-One" in the quiz show scandal of the late-1950s. Game play for "Joker's Wild" was only loosely based on playing cards, owing more to slot machines. The game play consisted of two contestants who alternately pulled a large slot machine lever that spun three screens that each landed on either a quiz category or a joker. If the screens landed on any combination of a single category and jokers, the contestant answered that question for a larger sum of money; if not, they selected a category for a smaller prize.

The winner of the main game went on to a short bonus round in which they pulled the lever on that same game board and tried to avoid the "devil." If they got a single devil the round ended, if they managed to avoid it, they got whatever combination of cash and merchandise the screens landed on and kept going until they did land on a devil. They then proceeded to face another opponent.

Now that the countdown has passed the halfway point, a few things (most of which I've mentioned before) are obvious. First, it's rigged to favor those shows for which GSN was apparently able to get the rights to show full episodes, namely Chuck Barris productions and those shows that are either GSN original series or are showing in reruns currently on GSN. (The network can't be blamed too much for this, as they can't be expected to show full episodes of shows for which they haven't got permission to do so.) Next, there seems to be a bias against the pioneering shows of the 1950s, both in terms of not showing any full episodes of them, as well as in their placement in the countdown so far. Many of these shows may not have a full episode extant in a form suitable for broadcast, but wouldn't the producers of the countdown want to move heaven and earth in an attempt to show a full episode of shows like "Twenty-One," "The $64,000 Question," or "You Bet Your Life" if it was at all possible? And in the case of "Beat the Clock," the net surely has the rights since the show currently airs in its overnight black & white block, so why not show an episode of it?

On the other hand, the countdown has given a glimpse at a few shows that aren't likely to surface again anytime soon. "Three's a Crowd," "The New Treasure Hunt," and "The $1.98 Beauty Show" all fall into this category. Many of the rankings do seem about right, too. #43 "Tattle Tales," #39 "G.E. College Bowl," #36 "Remote Control," #35 "Beat the Clock," #32 "Tic Tac Dough," and #23 "The Joker's Wild" all seem to be right where they should be. All of these trends that I have just mentioned are likely to hold for the remainder of the countdown.

No comments: