My husband and I have started watching The Price Is Right again after a hiatus in place since childhood when we’d each stay home sick from school. Things have changed on the show. Bob Barker has retired, of course, replaced by Drew Carey. He’s slimmed down, but still wears a newer version of his trademark Buddy Holly frames. I still have memories of Mimi’s blue eyeshadow every time I see Drew rush out with his ankle-skimming suit pants to greet one of the models (our favorites are Rachel and Manuela) to receive his microphone which, unlike Bob’s, is cordless. Another new face is George Gray’s, replacing Rod Roddy as the announcer. The products themselves are different, too. iPhones and flatscreen TVs—things that didn’t exist when I was watching the show in the early 90s.
The things that are the same, though? That’s what is more remarkable: the theme music, the garish colors, the 60s motif of peace, love, and flowers, every single contestant’s enthusiasm when they’re called—their disbelief (“Oh my GOD!”), their elation at learning they may “drive away in a brand-new car!” And honestly, many of the products are new versions of the same things, and this is made more apparent through George’s generic descriptions of them: a new car, a two-ounce bottle of static spray, a two-pack of cream-filled snack cakes, a new refrigerator and stove set, a trip to the Hamptons, a new three-piece set of luggage. Many of the games are ones I remember, too: Cover Up, Master Key, The Clock Game, Dice Game, Freeze Frame, and of course, Plinko. Plinko will always be a staple.
Even though the announcer is different, “Come on down!” is still the key phrase and people still come on down wide-eyed, jumping and dancing. Last week I watched an episode in which the new contestant skipped the aisle altogether and climbed over the center of the chairs to Bidder’s Row.
“It’s like they give them all speed before the show starts,” I say to Jeremy between bites of pizza. It is the second or third time we have watched the show on revival, early February, 2017. We are delighted. “Is that someone’s job, do you think?”
“Probably,” he says. “I bet it’s the same guy who writes out the name tags.”
“I want that job,” I say.
Jeremy nods on the couch next to me.
Just before the first bid after the climbing guy is settled, Drew explains the game in a single phrase: “Bid the closest to the actual retail price without going over,” and I wonder if there are really people left in the world who don’t know how The Price Is Right is played. It’d be like not knowing how to walk.
We watch a whole cycle of contestants and root for the original four to get up on stage. It only seems fair. But honestly, we cheer on anyone. It seems impossible to not want Sesame from Nashville to go on a trip to Maine or for Darrell from Sacramento to have a scooter. There is a newlywed couple that has the chance to win a new washer/dryer set and I want it for them so badly. A grandmother named Shirley wins a trip to Florida where her grandkids just moved.
“I haven’t been able to make it down to visit them yet,” she says to Drew.
I get misty-eyed. Get it, Shirley.
The studio audience wants the contestants to win, too. It’s rowdy as they cheer and dance, and frequent camera shots show audience members—strangers to this contestant—shout and hold up their fingers to communicate prices. When someone wins, we all win. When someone loses, we’re all disappointed. When the next contestant is called “on down,” no one gets jealous, they give hugs and high fives.
I set my pizza down and start googling how to get tickets.
At the end of the show, Drew says, “Please get your pets spayed and neutered; help control the pet population,” an homage to Bob Barker.
I wonder if Bob ever watches at home.
Here’s something else that’s different: there’s also a male model now, and my equality-driven, idealistic heart is supportive. His name is James, he’s Australian, and his abs could be featured on the cover of a bestselling bodice ripper. He just got engaged, and Jeremy and I, as well as the rest of the viewing audience, are so happy for him. He’s a little awkward since he can’t do the things the female models do (girlish shoulder shrugging, perking up from a tiny squat), but I am a fan of him anyway. He’s part of the family, and it is a family I love because of its quirks. Instead of intricate hand flourishes we’re used to, James listens intently to George, smiles, waves, nods, and stands near the products. He gestures loosely and claps. A few times, he has given a double thumbs up which, as my grandmother would say, tickles me.
The one major trick James has up his sleeve is wearing no sleeves—or no shirt at all. More often than not, if some snorkeling gear, a Caribbean vacation, or a personal watercraft needs modeling, James is the guy. During a recent Showcase Showdown, a small Filipino kid almost started singing after James was revealed behind a “curtain” atop a sailboat, waving and clapping in a blue and yellow swimsuit.
“He’s shirtless again!” the kid said, easily heard. He bounced a little and swooned. “He’s always shirtless!”
My husband and I rewound and rewatched that clip more than five times in a row, also delighted, but at this eighteen-year-old kid more than James—though now every time we see James shirtless, we sing out together. “He’s shirtless again! He’s always shirtless!”
I should perhaps make something clear about my newfound devotion to The Price Is Right. My husband and I both work during the day. We’re not home at 10 a.m. Monday through Friday, but something else has changed since I was a kid: DVR. Jeremy and I record these shows to watch them in the evenings, taking the place of other shows we’ve watched in the past year like Westworld, Game of Thrones, The Leftovers, and Samantha Bee’s The Detour.
Where other shows have gravity, The Price Is Right is no risks, all reward—and not one person has a problem. They’re all newly engaged or newly graduated. It is their birthday or they are here as a Christmas present from their loved ones. Hell, even the jobless ones are, as they describe it, “fun-employed.” No one is worried about politics. There’s no cynicism nor any sort of aggressive competition. All the contestants help each other out. Strangers regularly go out of their way to hug. They celebrate when someone they are presumably competing against wins. They groan when anyone loses. It is unadulterated, this positivity. “Let’s give away some prizes, George,” says Drew, adjusting his glasses. “It’s not my money.” The Price Is Right is unlike any other show we’ve watched. It’s a standout—a novelty—and one motivated by a specific hunger—a hunger to believe in people again. A hunger to like and trust them.
On February 10, a distractible blonde woman named Linda, in a blue suit coat, a striped scarf, and with glasses in her hands, got up on stage by bidding $699 on a shuffleboard table, going on to win a Kia Forte through a successful game of Spelling Bee. I didn’t see this happen, though, because The Price Is Right was interrupted by a live address from Donald Trump, whose travel ban had just been struck down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The disappointment-turned-anger that ran through me in that moment when Drew’s smiling face and Linda’s incredulous one were replaced by Trump’s was surprising to even me.
“No!” Jeremy and I shouted in unison. In the uncensored realm of our own living room couch, I tacked on a “Fuck you!” I’m not sure whether the shout was directed at Trump or the daytime news team who determined it was important that people hear Trump’s response to the court’s determination. Probably both.
I mashed the fast-forward button frantically, but there he still was: President of the America I felt I no longer understood or trusted, just two weeks after the inauguration, interrupting the one thing that—stupidly—was apparently providing respite. After a flurry of associated curses and continued button mashing, The Price Is Right resumed seconds into the Showcase Showdown with Linda behind one of the podiums.
“Hey, remember Linda?” Drew said. “She won $25,000 at the wheel.”
Jeremy and I looked to one another on the couch in disbelief and with shared contempt, though not for one another.
Somewhere in the second week of this The Price Is Right journey—just after the travel ban interruption—an older woman with silvering blonde hair, pink tennis shoes, puff-painted T-shirt, and a hastily written name tag that read “Noreen” took her first spin on the big wheel, hoping for that dollar which would grant her $1,000. She heaved with all the might of her little body and the wheel beeped and booped while she watched it as the crowd cheered for them both.
Drew touched the woman gently on the shoulder. “Is there anyone you want to say hi to?” he asked.
Noreen forgot about this part. With only the big wheel between them and the showcase, the contestants always forget about this part. “Oh, yes!” she said. “Hello to my daughter, my grandkids, and my new friends out in the audience!” She waved frantically.
In our marriage, my husband and I have some informal but serious vows. An example? He’s promised to never covered wagon me. Another vow he’s taken is the responsibility for getting me caught up and keeping me caught up on salient pop culture artifacts. He’s done a good job. Some years ago, my lesson was a supercut of contestants on The Bachelor, Survivor, Flavor of Love, Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, and others all saying the same phrase: “I’m not here to make friends.” It’s a good video. Go watch it.
Others have written about the phenomenon of “I’m not here to make friends”—Roxane Gay for one, though Gay uses the phrase as a jumping off point to discuss the idea of “likability” of fictitious women. Regardless, between the video, that essay, and my own casual consumption of reality TV, the phrase has been kicking around in my head for years. I hear it all the time now. But again, here’s the thing: Unlike all those other shows, Noreen, with her pink shoes and puff paint, was there to make friends—and she did.
The tone of so many American reality TV shows is cutthroat, eliciting trash talk, yelling, and fake, shaky camera effects. It’s the difference between the heavily edited Hell’s Kitchen vs. The Great British Bake Off, where the most aggressive thing I’ve seen was someone throwing away his own melted ice cream while the hosts and other contestants tried to convince him that not all was lost.
In that same season, one contestant didn’t come back to the final rounds of the competition (that happened on weekends) because his granddaughter had a dance recital or something. I’m sure it wasn’t really that, but I remember it that way and the principle still stands. Even the judges on the GBBO break bad news with more of a silver lining than Chef Ramsey. ‘Murica, though? “We’re not here to make friends”—and neither is our new President.
Here it comes. Are you ready?
We’re not here to make friends.
We’re building a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it.
The planet and its conspiracy theorists can fuck themselves.
Chancellor Angela Merkel doesn’t get a handshake.
Who needs China? Who needs Mexico? Who needs the UN? We’re not here to make friends.
Even the friends everyone thought Trump was going to make, but no one was interested in him making (Putin, Assad), aren’t panning out to be our friends. In fact, the only friendships Trump seems to be interested in maintaining are those with hate groups.
I just want to be part of a country that wouldn’t mind having a few friends, you know? Allies? It feels like the only countries still on good terms with us are like our mom’s friends who know that while we’re making some stupid decisions, they’re still pretty sure we’re not a total fuck-up.
Because here’s the thing: we all know something about that person who succumbs to the line “Oh, did you think I was here to make friends? I’m not here to make friends.” We know that deep down, they’re kind of just a narcissistic, selfish asshole who is covering for kind of having a hard time actually making friends, so they take the bully route and expend endless energy to convince themselves and everyone around them that friends are not what they wanted in the first place.
Do you hear how cynical I am? This is why The Price Is Right is the antidote—why I have this insatiable appetite for it.
After Trump’s election, I commiserated with my best friend over the phone while doing dishes, a mic’d headphone in my right ear. “I’m just so disappointed in people, you know? I don’t understand—I don’t trust—America anymore. What’s wrong with everyone?” I mindlessly rinsed some chipped ceramic bowls and set them on the drying rack.
“Don’t lose faith in everyone, Chel,” she said. “Remember that he didn’t win the popular vote.”
“Yeah, but it was close enough that didn’t matter.” I stared out my kitchen window at the kids getting off the school bus, wondering if their parents—my neighbors and coworkers—voted for Trump, feeling bitter, feeling betrayed by my trust in people. I had held out hope that rural Utah where I live wouldn’t disappoint me, that for once the upright and restrictive Mormon values seemingly infused into the water of this place of church events and clergy concern disguised as neighborhood block parties and neighborly visits would work some political magic for fairness and decency and work against someone like Trump, despite him being the Republican candidate.
But listen. I really don’t want to write another Trumpxiety essay. Others have written them better and from a place of more serious concern. I’m not here to wallow in what feels like our new dystopia, no. Me? I am here, to rest up before the next bout. I am here to watch The Price Is Right and make friends. At least pretend ones.
I want to come home after a day of teaching social justice issues to a group of eighteen-year-olds in a consistently red state and practice self-care by eating a pretentious pizza my husband made for me and for one whole hour (minus commercials) be happy with people again. I want the contestants to be quirky and enthusiastic. I want to borrow their energy for what I feel I’m lacking. I want to smile and feel delighted when they do something like not pay attention when their name is called. I want to be excited and I want to be positive. I want to cheer for strangers to win, knowing that there isn’t really a loser: one person’s winning doesn’t mean someone else lost. I want to watch people be thrilled about an extra $500, not disappointed it’s not more. I want to watch people “risk it all” when there really isn’t much risk. I want to see audience members as surrogates for myself giving one another what we think is all the right answers, freely and without contention. I want to be somewhere, even if it’s in front of a daytime television show recorded and watched at night, where someone can wear a homely, homemade T-shirt, hug a stranger thrilled for them, then watch them stare in amazement as the panels on the set of Bob Barker Studios pull back and reveal a goddamn sailboat, James atop it, smiling and waving, shirtless. He’s always shirtless.