Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

What the heck is happening with The Price Is Right?

I've enjoyed watching the show from childhood visits to my grandmother's through my eventual morning in the audience during Bob Barker's final years. Eventually, I found myself deeply interested in the craftsmanship, asking what manner of timeless innovation has made it such a viable and steady tradition since its revitalization in 1972.

Games have come and gone, camera choreography has been reworked, prices have risen, and the studio's old "modern" look is now a new "modern" look. But so little has changed because it got so much right from the start. The famous theme music has never been replaced. The segment structure remains untouched – three games, one wheel spin, all times two, then a showcase. The playful-sounding "contestants of all sizes!" that once flashed on the screen is an understatement: all shapes, colours, nationalities, philosophies and hairstyles have appeared and been treated with distinguished entertainment and respect by both Barker and Carey.

But most importantly, audiences – and especially contestants – have seemed unmistakeably pleased to be there, every show, for 45 years. Some wore this on their sleeve, some just on their face. I doubt I've heard of someone watching The Price Is Right whose reasons lack some form of "I'd like to see people who are genuinely having a good time."

Then the pandemic – the first in its long history. The whole TV and movie industry had to deal with this somehow. Continuing production was a mere option, and a packed audience was no option. It looks like the folks at Price decided the show must go on, flattened the seats, spaced out the podiums, and produce it with only the host, the announcer, the models, and the nine needed contestants appearing on screen. Understandable and respectable.

Unfortunately, this is where it got weird. In lieu of a live audience, I suppose you could forgive a canned one, and the audience here is obviously canned. Try watching for a few minutes without imagining a person sitting in a booth pressing "long cheer" or "cluster of chuckles" – it can be done well, but this sounds too mixed-in and predictable to suffice even as an illusion.

If that was the strangeness' apex, perhaps I'd have forgotten. But watching the contestants – the real stars – now feels unsettling, unlike anything I've felt watching a TV show. When Gray calls their "come on down," they enter the room dancing or cheering as though imitating the exuberance of a traditional contestant reacting to the shock of the revelation. The contestants must be prearranged. We and they know it's a practically empty room, that there's no real audience, and that there's no real surprise. If they get the winning bid, they're invited (or instructed?) to move to a giant red flower on the floor and perform some sort of supplemental celebration before heading to the stage. Here's an example. They wear this neither on just their face nor their sleeve; typical contestants could envelop a trenchcoat, as though they were selected largely on the basis of their willingness to do it.

I suppose what feels so troubling is the sense of a sweeping production choice so firmly rooted in resistance to reality. An empty studio is inherently much more tranquil, casual, easygoing, potentially intimate. There's so much available good feeling in that, and there's at least as much available good feeling in what the pandemic hasn't touched: the famous and able regular cast, the unmuddled diversity among the players, and the prospect of winning rare and expensive prizes. You'd think an insightful director would have let those aspects blossom and shine rather than dousing them with artifice. It's as though they've relied so heavily on a live audience that they don't know what to do without one, and have scrambled to fill the gap with the first thing they could think of.

The strength of The Price Is Right has always been the optimization of a simple, repeatable formula to maximize genuine positivity. Instead, their choice has been to maximize artificial positivity. I'm assuming other longtime viewers feel this too, if only semi-consciously. I think it's the first wrong turn the show has ever taken, and I hope the team thinks it over.