Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Game Show For Dummies

According to the introductory narration for the NBC weak long "event" Deal Or No Deal, the show is a "hit" in over 35 countries. It seems obvious to me that these are countries that have yet to discover the thrills ofJeopardy or Wheel Of Fortune. In fact they probably haven't seen Family Feud yet. Frankly I found this show to be boring with a capital bore.

Deal Or No Deal seems to be a cross between Hide And Seek and "pick a number between 1 and 10". There are 26 numbered briefcases (the fancy metal kind) held by a racially diverse group of attractive young women. Each briefcase holds a sum of money ranging between 1 cent and $1,000,000. Well not really - it holds a card that states an amount between 1 cent and $1,000,000 which I think is missing a bet but more on that later. The player picks one briefcase as his or her own. Then the game begins. The player tells host Howie Mandel the numbers of six of the remaining briefcases which are then opened to reveal an amount of money. That amount of money is then removed from the possible amounts that could be in the briefcase. After six cases are opened the "Banker" calls down to Mandel with an offer. This is the amount of money the bank will pay the player based on the possible amounts of money that could be in the briefcase. If that offer is rejected the player names five numbers before a new offer is made, and so on with the number of briefcases picked being reduced by one each time until the player is left to pick one case at a time. The greater the number of high denomination cases remaining the greater the offer made by the bank. Just as an example if three cases remain with values of $10,000, $300,000 and $400,000 (as happened in tonight's episode) the Bank might offer $189,000. If you were to substitute $100,000 for $10,000 the Bank's offer would be higher while if the $300,000 amount were $30,000 instead, the offer would be substantially lower.

There is a certain, minimal amount of strategy involved. Obviously there's no way in which the selection of briefcases can be anything but random, therefore strategy really emerges when it comes to choosing at time to give up hoping for the "two in the bush" and take the "bird in the hand" - that is to say when to stop picking briefcases and take the banker's offer. It's an odds question worthy of a poker player. In the situation I mentioned above, the odds were two to one against that the player had the $10,000 card in his briefcase but those odds were grater than they had been before the last pick which had eliminated a $400,000 case (but the offer was better as well). He took the offer and was right - his case had the $10,000 card but even if he hadn't taken the offer the next bank offer, when it would be even money that what was in his case would be $10,000 his offer would have been lower, but still significantly higher than the minimum amount he could have made. Just from casual observation it would seem that the optimal strategy if you have a large number of high value cards remaining and a small number of low value cards left is to continue playing, while the correct strategy with significantly more low than high value cards - say eight cases under $100,000 and two cases above it - would be to take what you can get rather than risk losing your high value cases thereby lowering your offer from the Banker.

The problem is that I don't think that any of the contestants who are playing this thing has any idea of an optimal strategy. Of the two contestants I saw on Tuesday night, one was a carpenter who didn't like to say the "F" word - which in this case was fiancee, referring to his girlfriend - and invited his bartender to be one of his supporters on the show on the grounds that getting him some TV time would mean free drinks. And he was the smart one! The other contestant was supposedly a teacher who seemed all giggly and called one of the models her friend who she didn't even know but shared her name. Lord give me the strength to not watch this again.

The show is hosted by Howie Mandel. Now I liked Howie Mandel when he was on St. Elsewhere. Despite being a comedian (allegedly) he seemed like might actually have some ability as a dramatic actor. I won't say he was one of the best things about St. Elsewhere but he was far from the worst. Unfortunately he never followed up on acting and devoted his life to such things as sticking a rubber glove over is head until he blew out his sinuses. If you're in Canada what you've mostly seen Howie in of late is a bunch of commercials for Boston Pizza (a chain of restaurants which as far as I can ell has nothing to do with Boston). If you've seen those commercials you'll be happy to know that Howie has taken a couple of downers and is vaguely behaving like a calm human being he's about a 1 on a scale where 0 is normal and negative numbers denote needing pep pills. But please don't get me started on the soul patch beard. A man of his age - which is to say about 9 months older than I am - shouldn't look like that.

The truth is though that any problems I have with Howie Mandel are minor compared with the problems that this show has forced upon itself. At the top of this article I mentioned that Deal Or No Deal is supposed to be a hit in 35 over countries none of which have discovered the thrills of Jeopardy. The producers are proud of the lack of intellectual stimulation in this show. At the start of each episode they state that there are "no crazy stunts, no trivia questions." The problem is that I like a show in which the contestants are challenged to do more than think of a number between 1 and 26. Whether that's eating gross food - as in Fear Factor (and believe me I never thought I say that Fear Factor was significantly better than another show) - or answering a trivia question, I want something more. I want my winners to work for their prize, to achieve it, and - not to put too fine a point on it - earn their prizes. That's one reason why I like The Amazing Race. Those people have to accomplish a great deal in order to win a million dollars while the people on Deal Or No Deal don't. And frankly, when you're used to something better, a game show for dummies just isn't enough. Avoid this like the plague.

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