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Howie Mandell: Lord of the Maggots?

I returned home after class Monday night and mother caught me up on the latest broadcast of Deal or No Deal. There were twins playing, and though they hadn’t gone home with the million dollars (we have yet to witness this), at least they came out of it with six figures.

It feels odd to turn a critical eye to Deal or No Deal, a popular game show, as no one is forcing the contestants to participate. After all, you’d have to be pretty naïve to go on any game show thinking the accountants (or producers?) are just aching to part with network money, but somehow DOND seems different – more orchestrated, more calculated, and more cynical.

For those of you who watch and enjoy the show on a regular basis, that last one may seem like a stretch. For the rest of you, let me bring you up to speed. It begins with 26 briefcases filled with set amounts of money, leading up to $1,000,000. The player picks one case at the outset and must decide how long they want to hold onto it. As other cases are opened, the amounts are ticked off and the odds shift either in or out of their favor.

There are ceremonious pauses (all the lights go red) during which The Banker makes an offer based on the aforementioned odds. The Banker is deliberately depicted as a phantom villain, making cutting remarks (albeit second-hand) and provoking the ire of the contestant. As the cases are opened and the pressure escalates, it gets harder and harder to ignore these offers on the chance that your original case holds the largest amount still in play.

My mother is a big game show fan (and I have to say, an MFA as well) and we’ve watched more than a few of them together – The Price is Right, Jeopardy, Hollywood Squares, Wheel of Fortune, Pyramid. Right away I started noticing differences about DOND: family and friends brought to the audience and stage to support and unwittingly confuse the player, as well as ratchet up the tension, and the impish Howie Mandell with his head shave and goatee mischievously cut to look like old Scratch himself.

DOND uses personal touches to convince us they have a lot of heart: the schoolteacher struggling to get by gets serenaded by her home school band and the veteran’s wife in tears as her husband greets her live from Iraq. These are beautiful, sweet gestures and they all serve to humanize the plight of the contestants who send in their five-minute videotaped auditions, hoping to appear on DOND. None of them are destitute, but it’s clear that many of them are in sore need of some financial help. That makes for better television and that’s the secret of Deal or No Deal: convince someone to defy the universe on national television and wait for the inevitable smack down.

The sinister side to any sort of gambling is the highly suggestive state of the human spirit. I’m no cold-water Baptist and I’m not about to preach to you about the evils of some recreational time spent playing poker or the ponies or buying lotto tickets. Gambling is harmless enough as long as you bear in mind that it’s only a game. However, when you’re struggling in your life and having trouble with the bills and other impediments that come your (and everyone’s) way – well, that’s when games of chance can really do a number on you.

You buy a scratch off. You score $500.00. Suddenly everything looks brighter. Maybe God loves you after all or at least He’s willing to give you a break. Like poor Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, you’re just looking for a sign you’re not born to only suffer. You’re looking for some cosmic validation.

So now back to DOND. Josh Campbell from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has just opened his 12th briefcase and eliminated $500,000 from the possible winnings. Josh has been sleeping on the couch at his married sister’s house now for a few years. His family is behind him. The Evil Banker has phoned with a ridiculously low offer to buy Josh’s briefcase, contents unrevealed.

About Christopher Soden