Black Box Boob Tube
Max Carpenter on the Cinematic Hinterlands of the American Game Show

“The things that rendezvous here do not belong to reality. They are copies and distortions that have been ripped out of time and jumbled together. They stand motionless, full of meaning from the front, while from the rear they are just empty nothingness. A bad dream about objects that has been forced into the corporeal realm.” Siegfried Kracauer published these musings in 1926 following a visit to Neubabelsberg’s massive UFA Studios, where he encountered set pieces from such films as Faust, Metropolis, and Die Nibelungen. Elsewhere Kracauer wrote enthusiastically about the camera’s magical ability to record and transmit reality, but to him the movie studio was an irreconcilable mishmash of synthetic replicas and organic life out of place.

No tourist’s trip to L.A. is complete without a studio lot tour. Whether you choose to walk or tram through the ghostly pasts of MGM, Paramount, Universal, etc., it’s alluring to see the curtain pulled back. These unnatural smoke-and-mirrors microcities that perturbed and fascinated Kracauer are now closer to museums—fossilized movie magic. A stroll through the old MGM Studios lot in Culver City comes with a promise of 85-year-old Wizard of Oz anecdotes, but the soundstages are still very much in use. Sony Pictures Television productions have taken over, most notably Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. Television thrives in these old dark warehouses, game shows especially.

The very mention of game shows alongside expressionist studio classics spurs in me a deep pang, the screeching of a wrong turn taken, but rest assured that I am not out to proselytize the artistry of the masscult. I merely wish to spend some time ruminating on these programs that seem to be the present-day inheritors of the movie-studio-as-nothing-space ethos.

Watching any old game show often makes me think of Noam Chomsky’s controversial take on professional sports television: Chomsky repeatedly has dismissed team sports as playing a sinister role in our world by giving viewers “something to pay attention to that’s of no importance” while also drumming up jingoistic attitudes in the masses. Even for people who nod along with most of Chomsky’s eloquent takedowns of ugly biases in global media, this hard line on sports is often a bridge too far. Game shows, however, don’t require any protection from Chomskian critique. Their brand is shiny trash, their function primarily as an empty-calorie diversion is palpable, and their always-changing contestant pools seem to actively discourage home viewers from having any consistent stake in the players on screen. Stupidly endearing, wholly unthreatening weeknight primetime standbys. In this transient capacity, Southern California warehouses may well have found their most enduring use case.


Errol Morris once made a show called First Person, which aired in 2000 and 2001. In it, the documentarian interviewed 17 different people, ranging from humane slaughter expert Temple Grandin to relatively more unknown eccentrics. Of all the First Person episodes, his interview with one Rick Rosner, a trivia savant who moonlights as a nude model, sticks out. This is partly because Rosner has an entertaining tinge of psychopathy and partly because he couldn’t be a sadder poster child for America’s game-the-system ethos. Rick Rosner lost big on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the ultimate embarrassment for a man who puts a ton of personal stock in his ability to crush IQ tests.

Rosner answered an unusually challenging $16,000 question incorrectly: “What capital city is located at the highest altitude above sea level?” (Millionaire’s answer was Quito, Ecuador, while Rosner’s answer was Kathmandu, Nepal; Wikipedia’s current answer is La Paz, Bolivia.) He recounts to Morris that in the aftermath he spent hundreds of hours researching every question ever asked on the program, coming eventually to the conclusion that the grammatical phrasing of his stumper question was not up to snuff with the program’s standards. He badgered the show’s personnel with letters asking for another shot before deciding to pursue legal damages of one million dollars, inevitably losing again. In the interview, Rosner retains the hangdog resolve of someone who knows he’s a sore loser but can’t help it. Morris frames Rosner’s intense and mournful face in medium close-up from a variety of roving, not-quite-straight-on angles, framings which pair well with the slow-motion video transfers and canted angles of CRT displays of Rosner’s appearance on Millionaire. Morris is undoubtedly trying to put the human of this interview in conversation with the human of these archival recordings of television—how real are the ghosts we encounter from either?

The strange metaphysical mingling of ersatz furniture and moments of raw human authenticity on shows like Millionaire feels like a rupture. These programs are traversable on-ramps for real people to appear as real people in the big leagues of television. Cinema will never approach this same window-mirror threshold just as a church service will never fully convince parishioners that they live in the same reality as the saints. Game shows beckon us all to vie for a spotlight in the center of the abyss of mass media, to try our hardest to earn a chance at winning the tiniest fraction of what could be considered fair pay for any other prime-time performer. They are a way for media conglomerates to broadcast an image of themselves chucking a few pennies in the direction of their paying cable audience, already coerced into hemorrhaging cash toward their dystopian duopolies. Once comforting linchpins in a nationwide mediascape, they are now vestigial remnants of a skeletonized monoculture.

Trivia shows have been part and parcel of the landscape of broadcast media history for most of the twentieth century. Several sources refer to an obscure radio program from the early 1920s, The Brooklyn Eagle Quiz on Current Events, hosted by the little-known H.V. Kaltenborn, as the first broadcast game show. (Kaltenborn went on to become a central voice in early radio.) Much like the crossword puzzle—introduced to newspapers a decade earlier—a pastime that tests the reader’s knowledge of current events gleanable from the paper surrounding it, the mass-media quiz show’s original raison d’être was to challenge average Joe contestants and listeners on their radio-born news knowledge. As soon as television was on the scene, it too presented viewers with quiz shows, word games, celebrity panel shows. Game shows immediately settled on the recognizable formula of casual chitchat amid competitions of wit and luck. But however much they may have leaned into their hangout ambiance and stuffed themselves with product placement, game show competitions were all the while held up to unspoken and invisible standards of fairness by their at-home viewership. As Robert Redford’s Quiz Show reminded moviegoers in 1994, the late 1950s brought a series of trivia show cheating scandals so potentially damning that networks didn’t dare broadcast quizzes with large cash prizes again until the mid-1960s. Jeopardy! emerged out of this fray in its original daytime incarnation in 1964 as, essentially, the fairest, most no-nonsense game show in town, primarily consisting of full-screen trivia flashcards.

On the surface, programs like Jeopardy! seem the most respectable incarnation of game show junk, and the childishness inherent in "respectable junk" interests me greatly. J. D. Salinger, chronicler of midcentury growing pains, has all seven of his fictional Glass family children appear on the made-up radio quiz show It’s a Wise Child—that is, before their precocities meet the chaos of adulthood. (Depression and suicide ensue.) Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia portrays another prodigy quiz show, What Do Kids Know?, as the ground zero of under-pressure ego dissolution, a great meaningless ethos for contestants like melancholy young Stanley Spector to stew in their anxieties and for viewers to meditate on the mundanity of life and death. The overwhelming allure of the quiz show is that it attempts for 30 minutes to convert the entropy of grown-up life experience back into the neat and tidy school exams of youth. It is entirely human to crave this structure, but the childishness of the fantasy is undeniable. As a precocious tween, I looked up to Jeopardy! all-timers Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, both of whom I assumed would never have to work again. Rutter especially appealed to me because he never had to “sell out”: he had been working at a Coconuts record store—“Cool!”—when he first won.


To aspiring contestants, the quiz show may be a comforting beacon of structure, but contemporary viewers of quiz shows—and all game shows for that matter—are met with something a little stranger. Whether you’re watching Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune or Family Feud, or the reboot of some godawful game like Press Your Luck, the aesthetic formula is the same. First you see, via swooping overhead crane shots, the meticulously waxed stage floors—nowadays this is HDTV so you’ll undoubtedly notice a few scuff marks—then the hosts sauntering out as unawkwardly as possible onto the set: a garishly expensive, flimsily cheap medley of colored carnival lights, slabs and hunks of synthetic plastic polymers, vast LED screen backdrops; every surface smooth yet pointy, every material with a cancerous aura, anything to distract from the fact that these shows, at heart, have almost nothing cinematic, or even visual, to offer. Then it is time to meet the contestants. On a show like Family Feud these contestants are suited to the nines in coordinated outfits, the whole racket smelling of test-audience approvals, dress rehearsals, TV readiness lessons. Wheel of Fortune tends to veer more toward a political town hall demographic in its contestant selection, seemingly attempting a cross-section of America rather than culling the most formidable competitors. Jeopardy!, though, has the authentic goods: normal weird people—a little square, sort of TV-unready, dressed somewhere between formal and casual.

The best American hosts effortlessly navigate the goofy giant toy boards plopped among their shows’ borderless James Turrell­–like spaces. Electric blue glows emerge from vague black darkness. What better way for a show to communicate its essence than use International Game Show Blue? Blue calms when there’s little other visual information. It’s a perfect placeholder, and in its iridescent form it conveys both life and deathliness with brilliant economy. In 1956, at the height of Hollywood’s anxious rush to demonstrate cinema’s superiority to television, Cinemascope films like Carousel and The Girl Can’t Help It began, similarly, with expansive blue soundstages, and in the former a lonely dead soul plods around in the vast background. “The space inside a television is bigger than expected,” writes David Gilbert in The New Yorker about his time as a contestant in the Wheel of Fortune studio, later remarking that “the space inside a television is nothing but a space to be filled.”

In Wheel, Pat Sajak has quite the amorphous environs to fill, and his opposing stilted physicality and impeccable dryness of delivery cut through the expansive vacuum with gusto. Hosts are Davids at war with Goliath game spaces, and no one so nimbly trounces his sets as Sajak; he rarely needs to move around at all. I often laugh thinking back to an episode when, remarking on a puzzle whose answer was the phrase “ROCK CLIMBING,” Sajak turned to Vanna White and riffed along the lines of “it’s an incredible coincidence, ROCK CLIMBING, because just the other night I found myself climbing out of my chair to get into bed.” Beauteous, jubilant nihilism. The best hosts have a cutting edge: in his decades on Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek perfected an unflinching talent for subtly intimidating contestants while they shared their ill-fit quirky anecdotes, relishing the dead air as they made fools of themselves in the most scarily relatable “I’m on television”–nightmare sort of way. With anxieties leveled to the max, Jeopardy! contestants felt more real than real, searching for a foothold amid the jukebox-looking rubble. What is a foothold, one might ask? “In rock climbing, it’s a small crack or ledge to gain a secure position for further advancement.” $400.

Jeopardy! is, on the whole, however, a rather friendly show. When Netflix began streaming episodes of the show for UK audiences a few years back, British writer Tom Whyman was shocked by “how resplendent with niceness everything about Jeopardy! is.” Whyman’s main point of comparison was the BBC’s intense Monday night quiz show bloc of Mastermind, Only Connect, and University Challenge, uber-nerd-only affairs that come with their fair shares of repressive taunting of contestants by the hosts, not to mention zero cash prizes: “If you want to win money by answering general knowledge questions on UK TV, this can’t be by knowing things that would ordinarily mark you out as somehow unusually smart.” These British shows, especially the one that’s considered the hardest—Only Connect—have become underground YouTube hits with English-speaking trivia nuts everywhere, and in the UK they garner around the same per capita viewership as Jeopardy!, but Jeopardy! is rather anomalous for being a substantive and well-watched trivia show whose players can win decent money. It greets so-called "useless knowledge" with a warm smile and sort-of-deep pockets.

And about useless knowledgeThe New York Times was the last major holdout in running a daily crossword puzzle in its papers. Editorial pretension kept such mind-numbing pastimes out of the pages until almost three decades after the crossword’s invention. It was only America’s entrance into World War II in late 1941 that convinced The Times to cave, as puzzles promised an apolitical distraction and a detached relaxation apart from the very real horrors of the war. "Daily distraction" is equally encoded in the game show genome. College Bowl, an American student quiz competition that aired on radio and television in the 1950s and spawned the UK’s University Challenge (while also fostering generations of Jeopardy! champions) was initially developed as a USO diversion for World War II troops. The creator of Mastermind explicitly modeled the show’s rapid-fire question format after his experience being ceaselessly interrogated by the Gestapo. And while the perceived uselessness of the knowledge base or the quirkiness of the abstract thinking inherent in certain game shows might seem to have more in common with the recreational mathematics puzzles of Martin Gardner’s Scientific American columns than with the applied mathematics of industry and militarism, this dichotomy is itself pure folly in an age where number theoretical research and cryptographic ciphers are national security interests. There’s an irony in the fact that one of the fundamental useless trivial pursuits is memorizing all the world’s country capitals, a task that couldn’t be less apolitical. What, for instance, is the capital of Palestine?


The professorial good vibes of Jeopardy!, the weekday-morning manic frenzy of The Price Is Right—these are American standbys, but they are also relics of a dying broadcast era. In our current time, when intelligence quotients and standardized testing have been deemphasized and supplanted by a more well-rounded understanding of smarts and achievement that cannot help but include social and athletic competition, a different sort of game show has arisen. Both tangentially based on British novels, Survivor and, much more so, Big Brother have bent the serial competition show format into a new distinct shape. “Outwit, outplay, outlast” (Survivor’s motto) is the ethos of these new 21st-century game shows, and the U.S., Canadian, and, recently, Australian versions of Big Brother are the purest exemplars. On these Big Brothers, the game is superficially as rudimentary as it gets: to win the show by never being voted out by one’s fellow players. Varied mental and physical competitions ensue, but these are all red herrings—little more than side quests meant to keep things interesting. The real game of Big Brother is keeping a cool head while sequestered from everything in the outside world for 100 days, trapped in, say, CBS’s cavernous Sound Stage 18 in Studio City, Los Angeles.

Big Brother is a neo–game show, a post–game show—a fact made plain when the windowless Big Brother Canada house was remodeled for a game show–themed tenth season in 2022. Reflective black flooring, bright lights, a spinnable wheel, and mystery doors felt less like themed décor and more like the natural state of things for a program whose participants perform a dizzying array of games in a tumorous outgrowth of a live television studio (Studio 550 in Etobicoke, Toronto, in Canada’s case). Captured almost entirely on wall-mounted PTZ (pan, tilt, and zoom) cameras, Big Brother airs three episodes a week on television, but these barely represent a morsel of the nearly-24/7 live feeds of the house that fans can watch online, fostering parasocial relationships with contestants on whose success fans might have some money riding.

Big Brother is built of extremes and excess. It breaks all the moderation of American game shows: the grueling challenges and abrupt vocal interruptions (the house often talks to the contestants) convey a taunting spirit, the solipsistic memorization challenges (e.g., “on what numbered day in this current season did an even number of houseguests compete in a veto competition?”) are nigh impossible for viewers to play along with, and the never-ending footage coupled with the serialized editing of episodes invites a sportslike contestant-rooting viewership mode.

The multilayered icing on the cake for American audiences comes every week when the host, standing on a polished stage only a wall away from the faux house, signs off with “I’m Julie Chen Moonves, love one another”—Moonves being a surname that Julie Chen publicly adopted only after her longtime husband, billionaire Les Moonves, was credibly accused of assault and harassment by half a dozen women, and “love one another” being a remnant of her similarly recent born-again conversion to Christianity. A credits sequence punctuates with the declaration: “This program is not associated or affiliated with the Estate of George Orwell and is not based on the novel 1984.” How’s that for a distraction from the exterior stressors of our world?


Reflecting on his studio tour, Kracauer marveled at an abyss of meaning just out of frame. Fifty years later, former advertising executive Jerry Mander authored the book-length polemic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, which, despite a quackish tone, preoccupies itself with the same ontological concerns as Kracauer. Mander despises television with the incredulous energy of a surly teen grappling with the world’s unfairness. To Mander, the most sinister attribute of television (and, by extension, perhaps cinema) is its power to convince its viewers that they are bearing witness to reality. At one point in the book, Mander instructs the reader to get up and look in the mirror and try to figure out the difference between his reflection and himself. “What is missing from the reflection is life, or essence,” he declares with a suspicious metaphysical certitude.

Kracauer would likely shudder at this declaration, yet Mander is brushing up against something real: if television were ever to reasonably convince viewers that the shadows on the cave walls were conversely a mirror of their own experience—a portal they could traverse—then it would seem fascism is always only a few steps away from harnessing this. Mander would be less than surprised to hear that a friend of mine who recently watched Big Brother while high on psilocybin mushrooms found himself unable to distinguish between the social sphere of friends sitting around him and his friends (players) on TV.

Old-fangled American game shows are stuck in the past because moderation is their secret to success. Big Brother fosters more rabies in its fandom and encourages bingeing (though is this better for Paramount+ subs or for torrent hosting sites?), but consequently spawns a perverted subculture that keeps it outside of the television monoculture. The r/BigBrother subreddit may have over 221 thousand followers, and the r/BigBrotherNSFW sub (where leaked moments of accidentally aired prurience from the live feeds are posted) may have over 88 thousand followers, but the show’s Nielsen Ratings rarely crest beyond one or two million viewers. (Jeopardy! handily triples and quadruples these stats.) Big Brother Canada, despite being a favorite among international fans and, to my tastes, one of the most captivating game shows on international television, has seen a noticeable drop in regular viewership in the past few years, with questions of cancellation surfacing now and again. Providing at-home consumers a seemingly endless portal to a pseudo-environment of studio fakery while dispersing the titular "game" of a game show into a looming specter that uncannily resembles the dailyness of life itself is, à la Mander, the most insidious thing a television program could do, and, per Kracauer, a fascinating release from the shackles of unreality. But from the standpoint of television broadcasters, peering suspiciously around themselves at the growing trash island of streaming and theatrical media while their own freighter gradually sinks, the old American game show formula works better, so it will have to do for now.

Jeopardy! is a gussied-up presentation of flashcards just as Wheel of Fortune is a series of hangman puzzles, and they will never let the interstices of HD awkwardness, unconvincingly apolitical smiles, or deer-in-the-headlights normie players steal the scene long enough to encourage any overtly transgressive modes of consumption. Game shows are frustratingly, beguilingly, and perhaps obviously the sine qua non of television: blue-balls restraint prevailing in an orgy of aesthetics.