“Here it comes!” cries George Gray, the announcer of The Price Is Right, as America’s daily ritual of psychedelic consumerism kicks off for the 118th installment of its 43rd year. The show is so embedded in our televisual consciousness—a majority of Americans have never lived in a world without Price—that Gray’s three-word greeting is the only introduction required. (He does, however, elaborate.)

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Price is the official show of playing hooky. Its frivolity and late-morning time slot have made it a proud symbol of irresponsibility for sick schoolkids and hungover clock-punchers alike. If you’re watching The Price Is Right, you don’t plan to get anything important done today. The frenzy of the opening minute, with newly minted contestants exploding out of their seats as the camera whips across the crowd, is designed to make you feel okay about that. “Here it comes” is the Pavlovian trigger that conjures a rainbow maelstrom of cars, cash, and bedroom furniture, a fantasy that only TV could concoct, where the victories are rapturous and the heartbreak is harmless. It’s a 60-minute refuge from the realm of truth and consequences. Who could resist?

Host entrance

The first climax of a Price episode comes when the host enters. After all the contestant slots have been filled, the opening of those big doors represents the moment when the final piece falls into place, and the games can commence. In the Bob Barker years, the direction of this moment would fixate on Barker, as you can see in the clip below, from a 1995 episode:

While Barker strides out from backstage, the camera pushes in on his face. A star wipe transitions to the bright lights on the ceiling. The camera tilts down as a model creeps into the edge of the frame, handing Barker his long microphone. Finally, another star wipe brings us in closer to the man as he savors the admiration of his public.

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The worshipful treatment fit Barker well. For much of his Price career, he had a sign outside his dressing room that read “W.G.M.C.,” an abbreviation for “world’s greatest master of ceremonies.” Mastery was indeed his style. He knew exactly how to tame the unruly amateurs who stumbled onto his stage every day—to channel their energy and eccentricities, transforming them into characters suitable for broadcast. Barker saw himself as the point of light at the center of Price, and if his double-star-wipe entrance sequence seemed excessive, it was. For anyone other than Barker.

When Drew Carey took over in 2007, his entrance was shot identically to Barker’s, and the master-of-ceremonies treatment no longer made sense. Take the clip above, from Carey’s first day of taping. Far from commanding the stage, he squirms and frets that the crowd won’t cease its applause. Carey would settle down eventually—it was his first day, in fairness—but the mismatch between presentation and presenter was emblematic of an awkwardness that afflicted Price throughout the early years of Carey’s tenure.

With time, the show conformed to its host. Although he got his start as a stand-up comedian, on television Carey has always been comfortable at the heart of an ensemble, like he was on The Drew Carey Show and Whose Line Is It Anyway?. So Price now positions him that way, too. This episode’s chosen microphone courier, Rachel Reynolds, joins Carey at the center of the frame. The jib camera swivels around to show Gray, who says hi to his mom. In this homey atmosphere, Price embraces its status as the broadcast comfort food we all know it to be. The communal vibe of the production has been Carey’s most inspired contribution to Price. He may have proven a lousy master of ceremonies, but he has become a superb host.

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Item up for bids #1: Trip to Palm Springs (actual retail price: $2,084)

Demetria’s bid: $5,500
Martin: $1,000 (winner)
John: $2,765
Courtney: $1

The initial round of bidding is often a hot mess since all four players are still disoriented by the adrenaline rush of their “come on down!” moment. Today’s first item up for bids is no exception. Demetria immediately takes herself out of the running with a wacky $5,500 bid. The primary rule of thumb for Price vacations is: The farther from Los Angeles, the more expensive the vacation. Either Demetria forgets this wisdom or she believes Palm Springs is in Korea. Meanwhile, Courtney squanders her last-bidder advantage with a panicked $1 bid. Both women will redeem themselves soon enough.

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The trip is presented on stage by James O’Halloran, who is only the second male model in Price Is Right history. O’Halloran’s repertoire of prize-flaunting gestures is limited. He jerks his thumb a lot, and when he gets tired of that, he claps. Then he’ll jerk his thumb again. Still, the man knows how to wear a shirt.

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Although gender integration of the modeling crew is a welcome innovation, neither of the show’s male models has been able to pull off the most important move in a Price Is Right model’s toolkit, the graceful arm flip. Veteran models Rachel Reynolds and Amber Lancaster demonstrate the move in the above GIF from another 2015 episode. Their twisting limbs welcome a contestant through the gates of game show Elysium.

Pricing game #1: 1/2 Off, for a $10,000 grand prize

Monday’s episode starts strong with 1/2 Off, which has some of the best staging in Price’s 75-game lineup. There are 16 boxes on display, and the player has to choose the one that contains the $10,000 grand prize. Every time the contestant prices a pair of small prizes correctly, half the remaining boxes disappear, making the ultimate choice that much easier. This is a delightful effect. The cubes glide smoothly down, nestling themselves out of sight where they can’t hurt anyone.

Martin nails all three pricing challenges, even as the producers try to trip him up by throwing a fondue set in there. Who the hell knows how much a fondue set costs? Martin does, apparently, and his perfect pricing earns him a $1,000 bonus. Plus, now he has a 50-50 shot at the jackpot. With only boxes #8 and #11 remaining, Martin opts for #11. Reynolds dutifully carts the box over to him, a job that’s trickier than it looks. Then Martin waits for Drew’s cue to yank the box open and see if there’s money inside. 1/2 Off is unusual in that the contestants perform their own reveals, instead of leaving that task to Drew or to one of the models. When Martin yanks the lid off box #11 and a pile of cash spills out, he is pleased. And nearly concussed:

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My mom has been sick for a couple of months. We know now that her prognosis is excellent, but it has been an anxious time. Last month I started watching The Price Is Right again, obsessively—not that I’ve ever watched it any other way. I used to watch with Mom on any day off from school, studying the patterns of the games and the patter of that marvelous host. She never questioned my dedication to a cheesy pageant, and she didn’t find it odd that a grinning emcee was my hero. She got it. That’s a big deal for a nerdy kid.

At first, it didn’t occur to me why I returned to Price at this moment in life. Then I made the connection. The prizes and songs and disappointed trombones, presented by Drew with avuncular warmth, made me feel closer to Mom. I’m always watching the show with her a little bit.

Mom was in surgery as Monday’s episode aired, and when Martin the 1/2 Off champion hit the floor, I laughed. Then I stopped and held it together. Mom always cracks up at stumbles—she turns into a snorting mess of gasps and half-stifled giggles, because she’s embarrassed to find it so funny, but this only makes her laugh harder. I’ve never seen her keep her composure when a contestant falls on their ass. It happens from time to time on Price, usually at the Big Wheel—where, in fan parlance, it’s called a “wheelie.”

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By the way, I hear the procedure went well. Here’s a wheelie for you.

Pricing game #2: Squeeze Play, for a “new home theater” (leather couch and 65-inch TV)

Demetria, she of the $5,500 trip to Palm Springs, makes a more sensible bid in the second round to win her way up on stage. Because 1/2 Off takes a long time to play, the producers follow it with a quickie to keep the episode’s running time on track. Squeeze Play is just the ticket. The contestant is presented with a price—in the shape of a picket fence, who knows why—that has too many numbers. The price of that home theater is not $68,099, and Demetria has to eliminate one of the middle three digits to make the numbers “squeeze together” in the correct price. She removes the nine, and it turns out she should have removed the eight to make a price of $6,099. Demetria loses, but she does so in a hurry, which is the important thing.

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Pricing game #3: More Or Less, for cookware, a motorscooter, a collection of Kate Spade accessories, and a Chrysler 200 LX

It’s the third game of the day, and we haven’t played for a car yet, which means it’s time for the big doors to reveal…a 2015 Chrysler! “More Or Less is a progressive game,” Drew explains. You have to win all the smaller items—by guessing whether the price on each one is more or less than the actual price—to get a crack at the automobile.

The producers don’t intend to let Courtney get that far. The Kate Spade accessories are a trap. Designer-label items trip up contestants because they’re more expensive than they seem. But the fanatics in today’s audience are wise to such trickery, and as Courtney ponders the $2,000 price attached to a handful of purses, the crowd implores her to go against her instincts and choose “more.” She follows their lead, with success. (Actual retail price: $2,337.) For a nervous contestant, Price is a high-stakes experiment in the wisdom of crowds.

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Now Courtney must decide if a Chrysler 200 LX costs more or less than $23,000. “Everybody’s saying ‘less’ except my family!” she complains to Drew. A shot of the peanut gallery shows partisans on both sides of the more/less divide. What hell it must be to seek useful information from these writhing aisles of humanity. Our player spurns the majority and follows her clan. “More,” she decides. One thing you can say about Courtney: She’s loyal. One thing you cannot say about Courtney: She is the owner of a new Chrysler.

Showcase Showdown #1

It’s a common misconception that the final act of a Price episode is the Showcase Showdown. In fact, the final act is the Showcase round. Showcase Showdown is the name for the two rounds in the middle of the show where they spin the wheel.

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That said, it’s easy to see why people make the mistake. Showcase Showdown would be an excellent name for the final act, which does after all involve showcases and a showdown. Furthermore, there is no reason that the actual Showcase Showdown shouldn’t be called what everybody does call it, the Big Wheel. But that’s not how it is. I do not decide these things. I simply decide that they are important.

Demetria says hello to her husband. Courtney says hi to her dad, boyfriend, brother, and puppy. Martin spins $1.00, winning a $1,000 bonus. He hoists Courtney, the contestant he just vanquished, in a euphoric hug. In response, she pulls the most badass game show move I’ve seen in some time. She backward-walks off the stage while continuing to cheer and applaud for the scruffy stoner who just ended her Price Is Right career. They tell you to be energetic on camera, but Courtney’s dedication to the contestant craft goes above and beyond.

On his bonus spin, Martin hits the green 15¢ space to cash in for another $10,000. He has now doubled his 1/2 Off jackpot for a total of $22,000 cash. But I’m sure he’s mostly excited about the three-night stay in Palm Springs.

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Item up for bids #4: Ping-pong table (actual retail price: $950)

William: $749
Faye: $1,200
Stephanie: $500
John: $750 (winner)

When the doors clatter open to reveal this prize, James points his ping-pong paddle at the audience in some sort of “Hey, you!” gesture. Across the table, Rachel fondles air with the form of a seasoned pro. Why couldn’t James do the arm flip? It would be cute.

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William bids $749, which gives John plausible deniability when he places a one-up bid of $750. Maybe John wanted to bid $750 all along! We will never know. Whereas if John had been forced to bid $751, his skulduggery would have been evident to all. William’s puny $749 only made it easier for the three remaining bidders to slide the dagger in. Contestant’s row is like poker in that way. You have to play your position.

Pricing game #4: Bullseye, for a trip to Argentina

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Bullseye is one of the easiest games in the rotation. You guess how many of a grocery item you’d need in order to spend between $10 and $12—the “bullseye” area on the game’s giant target. On his third and final attempt, John buys three packs of sponges, which, at $3.99 each, send him on his way to Argentina.

Bullseye has a strange history. An altogether different game by the name of Bullseye debuted on the second episode of Bob Barker’s Price in 1972. Bullseye ’72 was a tedious affair in which a contestant bid on a prize, and Bob told them “higher” or “lower” until they ran out of bids or landed on the right price, which they never did because Bullseye ’72 was impossible. It is the only pricing game in the show’s history to never award anybody a prize. Bullseye ’72 was rotten, and it was retired within two weeks.

A short time later, though, Price trotted out Double Bullseye, a mutated form of the virus that required two contestants—bizarre for a Price game. The players did the same “higher” and “lower” dance as before. The only difference was that they took turns and had unlimited bids, which guaranteed a winner. The revamped format was no less boring since all the show had done was throw contestants at the problem. Double Bullseye was soon killed off like its forebear, in the usual way: Barker personally drove the game out to the Mojave, buried it up to its neck, and sipped tequila as he watched it die.

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Pricing game #5: Switch?, for a pair of kayaks and a pizza oven

The setup for this installment of Switch? is as close to a slam dunk as it gets on Price. The contestant, Stephanie, has to decide if a pair of kayaks and a pizza oven cost $3,349 and $2,160, respectively, or if those numbers should be switched. Because the two kayaks are identical, their total price is going to be an even number—$2,160 for sure. Egged on by the audience, some of whom probably know this tell, Stephanie swaps the prices. She wins, though it might be a stretch to say that one “wins” a pair of kayaks and a pizza oven.

As the models pick up the pricetags and walk them across the stage, Drew jokes that this is the “most dangerous” moment on The Price Is Right. Recognizing the cue, James and Amber oblige the host by pretending to crash into each other. Drew makes this joke almost every time. Bob Barker had running gags, too. In the last decade or so of his tenure, Bob would reliably mark a playing of the Range Game by reminding contestants that once they stopped the rangefinder, it could not be started again for 37 hours. It was barely a punchline, but through repetition, it became a reassuring in-joke that loyal viewers would anticipate. Bob worked “37 hours” into the fabric of Range Game, and now Drew is embroidering the show with his own mini-traditions.

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Pricing game #6: Money Game, for a Dodge Journey SUV

Another of Drew’s habits is to remark that Money Game is one of his favorite games, although he never says why he likes it so much. From a board filled with two-digit numbers, the contestant has to choose the cards that make up the beginning and end of a car’s price. Because it’s such a simple contraption with no electronics or moving parts, Money Game is sometimes called into service when there’s a technical problem with a car game that was supposed to be played that day. It’s the substitute teacher of Price.

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Today’s Money Game player, William, unearths the first two numbers in the Dodge Journey by picking the $23 card, yet he fails to finish the job. That doesn’t mean he walks away with nothing. The rule of Money Game is that you get cash in the amount of the incorrect cards that you picked off the board. For wrongly choosing the $24, $67, $43, and $59 cards, William receives a whopping consolation prize of $193. The heartless joke of Money Game is that you can’t win very much money at all. Maybe that’s why Drew is perpetually amused by it.

The fabulous showcases

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The structure of Price naturally creates character arcs. Martin has all the momentum. His perfect handling of 1/2 Off and his luck on the Big Wheel have earned him a bankroll of $22,000. He’s here for gravy. Martin’s opponent, John, is the deceptively quiet retiree who backstabbed his way on stage with that shrewd ain’t-I-a-stinker $750 bid. John traveled to the studio all the way from Pittsburgh and hiked up his khakis almost as far. Their stories may be modest, but at least they have stories, both of which now hurtle toward their denouement.

Because he won more loot so far, Martin gets a choice: After the first showcase is unveiled, he can bid on it or wait for the second showcase. Cavalcade Of Prizes #1 offers up a desktop PC, a trip to Germany…

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…and a Ford Fiesta:

Most contestants would jump at a showcase with a car in it, but Martin smells a ruse. A Ford Fiesta isn’t the kind of car you use to conclude an hour of network television. It’s the kind of car you use to conclude a church raffle. Martin suspects he can extract a larger ransom from The Price Is Right, so he waits for the second showcase, which pays off his hunch with a Ford Mustang.

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James the model jerks his thumb at the vehicle to express his approval. He also punches a tire to signify that this is a car for real men—a penis, basically, but with inferior gas mileage. Martin bids $34,518 on the midlife-crisis-mobile (plus some kitchen appliances), and John bids $26,789 for the prize package with the Ford Fiesta someone found in a dumpster out back.

After the commercial, tragedy ensues.

Both players go over, so in the ultimate Price goose egg, nobody wins. John overshoots his showcase by only $230. “If you’d have just said 26 thousand, you woulda had it,” Drew says, salting John’s wound for the benefit of the home viewer.

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Drew’s lament boils down to this: “It didn’t have to be that way.” That’s an important idea on a game show. Double overbids are a big letdown, yet it’s essential that Price maintain its capacity to disappoint us. A big win is only thrilling because we know the game could have played out differently—victory is meaningless without the potential for loss. By heightening our awareness of events that might take place, Price makes us appreciate the events that actually do.

The funny thing about Mom’s love of the “wheelie” is that she doesn’t usually go in for slapstick. Show her a classic Farrelly Brothers movie, for instance, and you might get a few chuckles. But it would be nothing like the uncontrollable giggles that spill out when a geriatric Price player goes sprawling across the Studio 33 floor. The obvious difference is that in the latter case, the horseplay wasn’t meant to happen. Mom, like me, has always loved the special electricity of the unscripted moment. She got it. I treasure this connection more than ever, as I’m newly reminded that it didn’t have to be that way.