Game shows always bring out the communist in me. Watching Opportunity Knocks tonight, as host J.D. Roth threw stacks of cash at a financially comfortable family of five, I tried to have fun with it. Really I did. But with our economy crashing, it's a little hard to enjoy this sort of thing guilt-free. Escapism is great and all, but you can't help wondering what kind of fantasy you're being sold, and who's doing the selling. And how the hell is Ashton Kutcher involved in all of this?
Here's the pitch: host J.D. Roth and his crew pick a so-called average American family. They investigate that family's lives, from their houses to their neighbors to their school, and then, on a giant sound stage constructed on the family's front lawn, Roth tests Mom, Dad, and the kids on their knowledge of each other. The hour long show is divided into five rounds; the first four focus on individual family members answering a series of personal questions, while the last has the family electing one person to represent them for a final test. If they win, they get a lot of money and prizes. If they lose–well, everybody's a winner at heart, right?
It's been a long time since I watched something like this that wasn't Jeopardy! (hell, it's been a long time since I watched Jeopardy!), and I'd forgotten just how shiny and swoopy prime-time game shows are; it's like the whole thing is put together by a team of ADD-suffering pixies. The premise is basically a de-sexed version of The Newlywed Game; there's no other team to compete against, just your knowledge of your own relations and how well you can regurgitate that knowledge under bright lights and the fixed gaze of everyone you know.
The Lauts, tonight's contestants, did quite well. Only the oldest son, Aaron, got a significant number of questions wrong, but the kid's twelve; twelve year-old boys should barely remember their little sister's name, let alone what lizard scares her the most. (Answer: gecko.) It's interesting, given that the show supposedly revolves around in-depth personal questions, just how bland the Lauts were. Clearly this was by design; learning about Mom's special salsa recipe and little Megan's messy closet is much safer than delving into anything remotely personal. We did see a clip of Mom nearly getting kicked out of her son's baseball game, and I'd be willing to be she's the kind of mother who's going to be embarrassing the hell out of her daughter in five or six years, but that's about it. Dad's a doof, Cody's enthusiastic, and Aaron could've stepped out of a Judy Blume novel.
Megan was precocious, which is cool; a non-precocious eight year-old wouldn't do so hot under that many lights. It was a bit creepy seeing her answering questions and winning thousands of dollars; she even got a chance to win tickets for a taping of Hannah Montana, which I hear the kids are into these days. Something about that… I'm just being a pessimist here, I realize. The kid probably had the time of her life, and the family as a whole seemed as supportive and close-knit as you get. But it's an awful lot of pressure to put one someone that young. When I was eight, I had a hard time remembering not to eat mud. Earning my family enough money to cover my first year of college would've been entirely beyond my comprehension.
It's a pleasant show, though, and there's a decent "Everybody's a winner!" attitude. In terms of strategy, the closest we get is the occasional offer to "buy" a side prize that can also be won through a perfect score; it was nice to see Megan's parents letting her buy those Hannah tickets to take the pressure off, although they did make her wait till the price dropped.
Overall, this was genial, tacky, and about as funny as your average chorus concert. After an hour, I was no longer concerned about America's ruinous economic state, because dammit, I love my family, and I expect I will be rewarded for that soon. To be on the safe side, I'm going to go through my parents' trash again. They say they had tacos on Saturday, but can you ever really be sure?
—That family in the picture above? Not the Lauts.
—Ashton Kutcher, for the curious, is an executive producer. He continues to bring good into this world.