Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This interesting documentary follows a day in the life of Let's Make a Deal, an enormously successful Television game show that ran from 1963 to 1977, nor counting newer editions. Always exciting, the show combines a wild guessing game with a freewheeling con-job. The always-composed Monty Hall barters with picked contestants and then offers them the possibility of fabulous prizes in a 'choose between three doors' format. With perhaps $600 in his or her hand, a frenzied contestant might be offered to trade it for an unknown item, which could turn out to be a cornucopia of desirable prizes like kitchen appliances, vacations or new cars. The prize could just as easily be a worthless gag gift. When this happens, the contestant is said to have been 'zonked.'
It's easy to generalize the show as a circus of greed and a microcosm of the American culture of entitlement. On taping days crowds of would-be contestants gather outside the ABC TV studio, even though only a couple of hundred tickets are sold. The idea is to be so excitably telegenic as to be picked to sit in the lower gallery, where at most three or four entrants get to wheel and deal with Monty. Apparently someone wore a chicken suit early in the show's history and got picked. From then on contestants showed up by the busload in crazy homemade costumes.
The documentary Deal gives us a thorough overview of the workings of the show, offering background glimpses of how it is produced. The show's offices on Hollywood Blvd. are a nest of hard-working, rather desperate looking middle-aged writers trying to come up with new gags and twists that Monty can pull on live TV, many of which resemble the tricks of con-men and grifters. The writers barnstorm into each other's offices like gag writers, pitching little scenarios. The head writer criticizes them mercilessly. One writer has a problem keeping his own trick straight, a dizzy touch that in one instance causes confusion right in the middle of the taping. "Monty has three cards, see, red, white and blue coded so he can keep them in order ..." How Monty does keep all of these gags in order, all the while playing the congenial host, is part of the entertainment.
A staff meeting is a typical Hollywood shark session. The head honcho producer orders in tea for himself and announces that he wants everyone below the rank of senior writer to keep his trap shut. The docu appears to have been filmed in the last year of the show. After fourteen years the program's mechanics have long been worked out, and it's obvious that none of the writers' new ideas are being accepted. The head producer expects the show to magically pull itself together without his help, giving us the idea that he plans to hit the golf course twenty working days out of the month.
We also follow the star Monty Hall, a level headed and reasonable fellow. He stays ahead of the office fray and concentrates on the game-show biz: Who's being cancelled, are there any rumors of trouble for his program, etc.. A nice segment has him admiring his star at the corner of Hollywood and Highland, where the giant Kodak Theater complex now stands. Monty is pleasant with a tourist and his son as he explains that his background was anything but glamorous. Of course, game show stardom has its plusses and minuses. What exactly has he accomplished beyond becoming a household presence? Is that enough?
A day's taping is a maelstrom of coordinated activity, what with all the merchandise to be moved behind the three doors and a crowd of 300 to be prepped and arranged. The producer primes his audience, warning them, "Don't even curse silently ... people can read lips!" The 'guests' are a starry-eyed group easily typed as being the lowest common denominator of Americans. All are enthusiastic and the ones chosen for the lower gallery tremble with excitement -- hope for a fancy prize clearly warps their ability to tie their shoes, let alone make good decisions. The show goes well and is quite entertaining. It's important to state that neither Monty nor the show humiliates the contestants or makes fun of them in any way; they're quite sympathetic and respectful. When it's all over, losers and winners march back to their buses as if still at a party.
Deal's critical agenda is poorly integrated. It begins with a quote about the evils of television from Les Brown's book Televi$ion, the Business Behind the Box: Commercial television doesn't present entertainment but instead sells a product. The product being sold is not the enormous volume of consumer products hawked every day. It is instead the audience, which is sold to the advertisers. Television delivers viewers. Viewers are the commodity.
That intellectual statement sounds like the media equivalent of "Soylent Green is people!" but Deal never directly addresses its implications. Instead, we're invited to make our own assumptions about Let's Make a Deal based on the docu's biased reportage. The contestants are pictured as Yahoos and Hicks, the kind that elitist cynics decry as lumpen masses blindly wasting their lives worshipping the consumer culture. Actually, the players are no more foolish than any group of tourists having a good time, whether conventioneers or old ladies playing bridge. If you think about it, people jumping up and down trying to get the attention of Monty Hall are no more ridiculous looking (or greedy) than stockbrokers leaping up and down on an exchange floor, buying and selling as fast as they can.
We follow one winner home and watch her wake her children and greet her husband (coming off the night shift?) with her ecstatic tale of winning a giant prize. With her Texas accent and dazzled grin, she seems an idiot. Her family reacts with restraint, no doubt due to the intimidating presence of the film crew. The impression given is that mom is a greedy zombie, back from a free shopping spree at the mall.
We then see prize furniture delivered to a winner's house. The wife sniffs at the booty as if she expected it to be made of gold. What the big winners don't realize is that the IRS considers those $20,000 prize packages to be income, and taxes will have to be paid on it. So unless she has enough cash to cover the tab, the winner may be forced to find a buyer for that pretty new car. Ever try to sell even a brand-new piece of merchandise for anything like its real value? The system doesn't work that way.
The interviews with the writers and producers do not seem fair either. It's obvious that the filmmakers leaned on them to justify their show; Monty Hall's defense is mainly to refuse to take the bait. No contestant is forced to participate and many valuable prizes are given away, he reasons. Monty then stresses his busy activities in charity work, which in context makes him seem defensive. We don't hear the questions being asked, but we suspect that they're the "When did you stop beating your wife?" variety.
The filmmakers quiz the writers in their suburban back yards. One writer can afford a house and a pool but game shows are an insecure business and he dreams of beating the racket by becoming a producer. With the 70s game show market tied up by three or four successful production teams, that's unlikely. Finally, the big producer stands on the deck of his Malibu beach house (which looks to be a few doors down from Dr. Soberin's atomic death bungalow in Kiss Me Deadly). He muses over his game show empire like a victorious general who has lost the drive of youth. Perhaps he already knows that cancellation and retirement are on the way.
The writers and producer (and his gleeful wife, wallowing in luxury) respond as best they can to unheard questions. Judging by the responses, the questions must have implied that Let's Make a Deal marks the end of Western Civilization. That seems unfair, even if the show encourages weak minds to enter the "Something for Nothing" consumer mindset. That's certainly nothing new. Blaming wealthy show biz entrepreneurs for not contributing to the higher strata of culture is really a form of scapegoating. "Caveat Emptor," quotes one of the interviewees, and it's a fair defense. Is Let's Make a Deal evil because it doesn't contribute to the national good? Legalized gambling, tobacco, liquor and firearms are some of our biggest industries.
S'More and SFM's DVD of Deal is a good transfer of this almost-good documentary, that takes a weak critical pose. It works best as a fascinating document on how a game show is produced.
Quoted on the back of the box is an endorsement by the canny media critic Amos Vogel that bestows more significance than the show can bear: "...hilarious, horrifying, apoplectic, bizarre, (Deal) attempts nothing less than to serve as a metaphor for a civilization." Okay, I suppose, but that's quite a stretch. The quote says it comes from something called Film Content. I may be wrong, but I think they meant the magazine Film Comment. The DVD of Deal would have been ten times as interesting if it included a commentary in which the filmmakers could state their case. As it stands now, the show is entertaining but biased, and the provocative quote up front appears to be tacked on to encourage a negative reading.
The only extra is a trivia game. The packaging doesn't play up the docu's vaguely critical tone.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Trivia Game
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 3, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson