Games people play

Against my better judgment, I forced myself to watch the new TV game show "The Weakest Link." It's billed as a cross between Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The premise is that a "team" of players is enlisted to answer absurdly arcane, nonsensical, general-knowledge questions, rapidly fired at them by the show's diminutive female host. As each correct answer is requited, the "team" earns a large amount of money. Incorrect responses bring the total earnings back down, unless the lucre is "banked" by an individual before his or her turn on the firing line. Then, as each round progresses, the "team" sacrifices one of its own -- usually a member who has either failed to answer enough questions correctly or has neglected to carefully "bank" the accumulated cash.

By game's end, the "team" is whittled down to one member who wins all the money, while his or her former "teammates" fade into game-show obscurity. Of course, the washouts get to be thoroughly denigrated by the show's hostess and publicly shamed for their lack of intelligence and game-playing skills, with what clearly will become America's newest catch-phrase: "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!" Before disappearing into ignominy, the losers get an opportunity to whine about how they were kicked off the squad -- not because of their failure to perform but because of some deep-seeded hatred or perverse jealousy on the part of their intellectually superior but emotionally stunted ex-colleagues.

All in all it was a completely depressing experience. How far we have fallen from the days when Groucho would gently chide a male guest on "You Bet Your Life" for his bad toupee, or amusingly leer at a pretty female, his eyebrows dancing up and down in mock excitement. How he would enjoy giving his innocent players enough hints so that they couldn't possibly miss getting the right answer to a question that might net them an extra -- $50. And how he apologized for the hurt pride when they failed to win their modest sums, or if the duck didn't come down with the "secret word" amid a fanfare of trumpets and an explosion of audience delight.

How I miss the urbane and witty banter from the likes of publisher Bennett Cerf or columnist Dorothy Kilgallen that accompanied the blindfolded hi-jinx on "I've Got a Secret." How happy and relieved I felt when host John Daly would "flip over all the cards" if it looked as if the panel was veering off track, so that celebrities, guests and viewers alike could all share in the cohesion of group victory and the good-willed fellowship that was always more important than correctly guessing the "secret."

Yes, I also grew up watching "G.E. College Bowl" with host Allen Ludden. How I enjoyed matching wits with all the collegiate nerds and geeks, trying to outguess them on questions a bit more academic or profound than the name of the latest boy band.

If what we watch is what we are, what we play and who we would like to be, then as a nation we are in deep psychological trouble. The new games show has journeyed from the fixed to the fixated; from the benign to the benighted. It has joined its trash talk-show cousin to sit bestride the offal heap that has become modern television.

It prizes cruelty and vindictiveness. It replaces cooperation and team spirit with Darwinian struggle and lowly power-mongering. It debases true intelligence and wit, superceding them with demonstrations of mediocre intellectual skill and shallow displays of factoid recall. It insults and offends for the sake of a visceral response and it smears participants in order to make viewers feel superior and clever.

It delights in mocking charity and sacrifice, and prizes nothing over personal greed. It shuns grace and dignity for neurotic spite, and elevates denial and sullenness to lofty levels. In sum, it celebrates all the negative social pathologies that we try to wean our children from in our quest to shape them into empathetic and mature adults.

We are headed down a sad road. Some day soon, not only will we sit in front of our sets, waiting for the next televised execution of some demented sociopath, but we will get to watch the poor bastard be chosen for extinction by a "team" of money-hungry game players. Some overpaid celebrity will declare him the weakest link and bingo, his sorry ass will be fried for our general amusement and mollification. The duck will come down, the credits will roll, and we'll all get a chance to tune in next week. Think it's a stretch? Just watch what we're presently offered and see how low we've already come.

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