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Sunday, July 17, 2016

The new Match Game is a very, very good revival. They finally got it right.

Gene Rayburn and the panel in the 1970s.
 Tonight is the fourth episode of the latest revival of Match Game, otherwise known to my friends as my favorite television program of all time. A reincarnation of the popular 1970s game show that lives on in GSN and BUZZR reruns, the classic show is back in full force on the primetime ABC Sunday and Fun Games lineup with Alec Baldwin as host. The results so far have been great in the sense that critics have provided resoundingly strong reviews and the ratings have been quite solid, beating the offerings on other major networks in the same time slot.

(I was even lucky enough to see a taping in person with my great friend Evan Feurstein in New York City. I should also mention that I am especially grateful to my wonderful girlfriend Erin and her parents who made time to watch the premiere episode with me recently when I visited Erin in Atlanta during her summer internship for The Carter Center).

However, when the revival was announced in April, a lot of Match Game fans, myself included, were excited but apprehensive. The nervousness is attributed to the fact that all previous efforts to revive the show disastrously failed. There was the anemic Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour - which barely survived a single season - that felt incredibly forced: a lame effort to fuse two shows that had little to do with each other.

That effort failed in no small part because the Hollywood Squares portion was hosted by Sha-Na-Na's Jon "Bowzer" Bauman, an individual who was simply not cut out to be a game show host. Then there was the short-lived 1990 revival, a noble ABC effort that had its positives, like bringing back Charles Nelson Reilly on the panel, but was plagued by an unfortunate time slot and dry hosting courtesy Ross Shafer. Towards the end of the 90s, an even worse attempt was made in the form of a syndicated version that also suffered from poor hosting skills, a bizarre panel, a low cash prize, unfunny questions, a lackluster set, and terrible time placements.

Alec Baldwin and the panel on the new Match Game.
To be fair, it is a difficult task to revive Match Game and that's because the 70s version was simply so freakin good. The chemistry between energetic host Gene Rayburn, the fun (drunk) celebrities, and the contestants was what made the show so entertaining. It is hard to replicate that unique interaction. But what's also true is that the show pushed the envelope for its time, featuring risque double-entrende fill-in-the-blanks that could be answered with "boobs," "derriere," and "making love," all permitted terms on CBS daytime. As TV's social standards have relaxed over the years, it's become harder to elicit the same shock value and humor.

But where other revivals miserably failed, this Match Game succeeded -- with flying colors. Of course, it still is no match for (no pun intended) the 70s version but it's at least a solid B+ show. For one, Alec Baldwin is a genuinely good host. He skewers contestants, a la Steve Harvey but also a la Rayburn himself, when their answers are bad, and he has a hilarious rapport with the celebrities that is genuine and whimsical.

Speaking of the celebrities, they are solid picks who viewers recognize and are entertained by, like Titus Burgess and Sherri Shepherd and Sutton Foster AND especially the talented Rosie O'Donnell (occupying the Brett Somers seat but replicating Richard Dawson in mastery of the head-to-head match), and these celebrities clearly are drinking a little between tapings so that makes it more enjoyable.

Further, the questions are topical, with figures like Donald Trump and Justin Bieber implicated, so that gives it a sort of Cards Against Humanity feeling that folks enjoy. The questions can also finally actually be answered with words like "penis" and "vagina," disallowed on previous revivals, and that's liberating in a way because it allows for more freewheeling, laugh-out-loud moments. In that way, this version is envelope-pushing in the same kind of way the 70s program was. Another vital update from those prior revivals is that the dollar amount of the top prize is finally at a higher level: $25,000; the 1998 version unthinkably kept the top amount at $5,000 (the same level of the 70s show).

Beyond that, this revival works too because it retained so much of what works from the 70s show like the catchy theme song and think music, the signature skinny microphone, essentially the same vintage set, silly format, and cool logo, and even the same kind of opening. Previous revivals tried to change these things for more modern or different styles and features that were, frankly, not appealing. Don't fix what's not broken!

In fairness to the previous revivals though, this one has succeeded actually partly because a newer, younger generation, including me, are familiar with the 70s Match Game now thanks to its reruns. That wasn't necessarily the case in 1990 and 1998 when previous revivals tried and failed; consequently, there are millions of new fans who are undoubtedly part of the audience of this revival.

Lastly, it is important that they put the show on in primetime on Sundays in the summer: a time when Americans are watching television and want to see something funny and relaxing before they head to bed for the week ahead. It helps too that it is part of a lineup of game shows that include Celebrity Family Feud and The $100,000 Pyramid as viewers stick around from the previous shows at 8 and 9 pm, respectively. As the celebrities and Baldwin become increasingly relaxed and even more comfortable in their roles, this Match Game will continue to succeed.

For more on Match Game, including an in-depth explanation of why previous revivals failed, check out my website. (Thank you to my great friend Jack Cartwright for giving me this website back in 2004 when he set it up for me).

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In Defense of the Conventions

Barack Obama first rose to stardom as the 2004 DNC keynoter.
On Monday, MSNBC's Chris Hayes described the recent Democratic and Republican national conventions as "infomercials" for the parties. To some extent, this characterization is apt, as reflected in the feel-good videos Rachel Maddow highlighted from previous conventions. But the conventions are still important even though they no longer play as pivotal of a role as they once did in our presidential elections. In recent years, the conventions have proven highly effectual, unusually revealing, and surprisingly insightful.

The conventions can sometimes be flawed spectacles that are so highly scripted that they are inauthentic in the presentations of the candidates. However, they are generally a vital element of our presidential election campaigns because of how unique they are.

For one, the conventions are actually politically important in determining the trajectory and ultimate outcome of a presidential race. For that reason alone arguably, they are worth at least paying attention to because they could truly decide the fate of the country. That's because, if done right, conventions are pivotal to uniting party loyalists, including partisans across the country. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck documented in The Gamble, the 2012 Democratic National Convention, widely praised by for how well it was orchestrated, was pivotal in rallying Democratic voters around President Obama. 

Indeed, Obama, still the most popular president among Democrats in history, won that year the highest percentage of Democratic votes of any nominee ever. Bill Clinton's famously articulate nominating speech, Elizabeth Warren's debut on the national political stage, and the enormously popular Michelle Obama's moving address all helped make that possible. A similar effect helped Al Gore in 2000 narrow a 15-point gap (from the summer of 1999) that dissipated after the DNC to produce a tight race that led to a narrow popular vote win. George W. Bush benefited tremendously from the 2004 Republican National Convention too thanks to a combination of the patriotic backdrop of New York City in the first presidential race after 9/11 and well-organized critiques of John Kerry

On the other hand, conventions could be disastrous, even if inadvertently so, for a party's chances. Mitt Romney famously forgot to mention Afghanistan, John Kerry's "reporting for duty" line was devastatingly used against him, Ted Kennedy's awkward handshake with Jimmy Carter portended party disunity, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention was genuinely a chaotic mess marred by violence. To varying degrees, these events were pivotal because they actually helped shape the election and, in turn, the fate of the nation -- and, contrary to popular belief, the conventions are (as such) historically more important in determining election outcomes than the debates are. 

More importantly, the conventions are actually one of the most substantive events of the cycle. Actually, they can be more substantive than even the debates because, unlike the debates, conventions actually allow for lengthy, detailed and comprehensive speeches that can dive into deep policy discussion. There is no better recent example of this than Bill Clinton's 2012 speech for Barack Obama; he even explained the GOP proposal to block-grant Medicaid

Obama's own 2008 convention acceptance speech proved to be a vital preview of his actual policies. With tens of millions of Americans watching, these speeches can grab viewers' attention in a way debates disallow; there aren't merely quick snippets and mere soundbites, or policy agendas jammed into fast responses, but instead real agenda-setting speeches.

As such, conventions can be objectively good in holding candidates accountable to the words they utter in those important speeches. For example, it was in the 1988 Republican National Convention that George H.W. Bush memorialized his "read my lips" pledge. When he violated this pledge, the videotape from the RNC was a staple of the 1992 Clinton campaign's advertisements attacking Bush. In his 1979 "crisis of confidence" speech, Jimmy Carter cited the promises from his 1976 DNC nomination acceptance speech to make the case regarding his leadership. 

Such speeches are also vital in framing the agenda of a party for the future and, as such, inspiring activists and party leaders to aspire to the words of those addresses in crafting proposals and actual policy. Conservatives today are still motivated by the words of Ronald Reagan's 1980 RNC acceptance speech and liberals are still moved by Mario Cuomo's 1984 DNC speech. Words matter. 

In that way, conventions are revealing but they are also revealing in another important aspect: introducing us to up and coming political stars like Ronald Reagan in 1976, Barack Obama in 2004, and Julian Castro in 2012. Their premieres on the national political stage in the conventions propelled their careers and, naturally, raised public awareness regarding their backgrounds, views, and agendas. 

Ultimately, all of these positive elements of the conventions prove that they are still useful civic events that are, at times, truly informative or at least politically noteworthy. It is a good bet that this year's conventions will prove to be at least the latter...yes, even, the Trump Show of Cleveland in ways we don't fully know yet. Tune in!