Daily Tedium

The Game Of Life

The Wall was built to change lives, but NBC’s hit game show, in its own weird way, reflects the complexity of those lives, along with our current culture.

By Ernie Smith

There isn’t a better explanation for the current state of the American psyche than the impressive success of The Wall, which just had its season finale last night. It has a name that evokes a certain political football without ever actually referencing it. It counts perhaps the world’s most famous basketball player as an executive producer. It counts perhaps the busiest man in the world— the CEO of a freaking media empire—as its host. And it’s primarily built around a style of game that people associate with America’s most famous daytime game show, The Price is Right.

But in some ways, it’s also a melting pot of ideas. Beyond Plinko (or, as Chris Hardwick would quickly point out to you, pachinko), it’s also made up of elements of many different kinds of game shows. It combines chance, trivia, and negotiation into a single stew. And it sexes it up, gives it a bit of a technological update, and makes the whole thing feel like an event. Of course it’s killing it in the ratings.

The Atlantic’s Megan Garber recently hinted that the show’s biggest tell as a cultural phenomenon isn’t the giant board but how it frames success:

The Wall, like most game shows, uses money as a prize. Here, though, unlike other game shows, it is an end in itself. Contestants talk, in detail, about what they will do with the money they might win: pay off student loans, buy dream homes, start families. Hardwick talks about his own desire for them to walk away with “money for your family, for your future.”

In a lot of ways, The Wall carries the challenges of real life—a mixture of skill, effort, hope, luck, and fate. All five of these things define where you go, what you can be. But only some of them are things you can control—and sometimes your loved ones make those decisions for you. Mostly, like the rest of your fellow Americans, you’re just keeping your fingers crossed that things fall into place.

(Hardwick is the perfect host for this, by the way, because of his track record: An overnight success 20 years in the making, he represents a great example of what happens when all five of the above attributes come together in just the right way, with a particular lean on the first two.)

That this game show has come about when so much of our culture is unclear and unsettled hints at a similar phenomenon nearly two decades ago: The success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, at a time when the myopia in-the pre-Y2K years was starting to catch up with us, the hangover of the Clinton impeachment trial was still wearing off, and—oh yeah—we were being told to buy pet food on the internet.

Simply, we need a bit of a cultural release right now, and this game show is the goddamn answer.

Thank you, LeBron James. Thank you.

Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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