Let me say, remotely alluding to Robert Frost, that something there is that loves a puzzle. Any kind of puzzle, as long as it makes the solver feel good. His conquest cannot compare with Genghis Khan’s or Napoleon’s, but conquest there is, and the glow of satisfaction.
How much more so when monetary gain is involved! That’s what’s at stake with Wheel of Fortune. As you may know, the show’s title alludes to the Roman goddess Fortuna, to whose wheel our ancestors were attached, like it or not. At the top, everything went their way; at the bottom, they might as well have been up the proverbial creek—assuming the phrase had already been coined.
That clever fellow Merv Griffin (1925-2007), whose eponymous television show you may have been born too late to enjoy, invented two television shows that still follow each other: Jeopardy! is on at 7 p.m., Wheel of Fortune at 7:30 (or vice versa in some locales). Both shows have passionate fans. Jeopardy!, to be sure, is for persons with intellectual aspirations. There, the contestants must pose in question form the response to clues such as: “Chris Christie is the governor of this state”—which, of course, is important. Or, less important: “This famous English writer is buried on the island of Samoa.” (The latter, by the way, stumped them all.) Clues about the arts are harder for contestants than those about, say, sports. Given the clue “He won the Heisman Trophy in 1947,” the contestants would have no problem responding, “Who is Johnny Lujack?” Their memories are fabulous, and their expertise with obscure facts, ditto.
But not every TV viewer is intellectual enough for that program. Wheel of Fortune, however, is for everyone, whether one is a contestant or merely a viewer at home. What the contestants on Wheel of Fortune are confronted with is a screen with rows of small empty boxes, like a fresh crossword puzzle. They are given a clue, such as “Person” or “Thing” or “Phrase” or “What Am I Doing?” In front of them is a large wheel that they spin: It bears various monetary or other awards—exotic trips or half a car (you must get the other half later)—on cards, and also several punitive cards. They must pick a consonant, and if it occurs in the correct answer, they get what is on offer—say $450 or $900, or a luxury hotel stay on an island other than Samoa. And if there are, for instance, three of the same consonant, they get thrice that sum.
When a contestant picks a letter not in the correct answer, the next contestant gets his or her turn to spin, and some contestants amass a tidy sum. There is one pitfall, however: When the wheel lands on BANKRUPT, the unhappy contestant loses whatever he had gained. The beauty of it all is that anyone can win on the picked letters—the only prerequisite being familiarity with the alphabet—or better yet, by coming up with the full solution when there are enough letters in the boxes.
I won’t go into the various details of how and what one wins, but if you win $100,000, like a recent contestant, or gain a good trip, say, to France or Greece (Hawaii and Las Vegas strike me as somewhat less desirable), you are not Fortune’s fool (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 1) and can giggle, laugh, and jubilate with the best.
Here I must point out that Wheel contestants are carefully chosen. Some of them have a husband who proposed on a sailboat or while riding on an elephant. Some have 11 siblings rooting for them back in Alaska. Some are from a deserving minority—black, Hispanic, Canadian—or have various odd jobs in unlikely places, allowing Pat Sajak, the dapper host, to display his whimsical wit. Quite a guy that Sajak, equally capable of offering heartening quips for losers (along with a consolatory gift of $1,000) and a pat on the back, with empathetic gusto, for winners, as he ushers them toward a bonus round at another wheel, where they may win a further prize of anything from tens of thousands of dollars to a gleaming new car standing by on the sidelines.
But what’s in it for us home viewers? All sorts of things. Many contestants carry on like jumping jacks, letting out unearthly squeals of triumph, terrific for earning viewer empathy. (This includes cheers from their partners, when they are playing in pairs, either conjugal or collegial.) But there is also the chance, during Sajak’s questioning, for the contestants to tell wonderful stories about things that have befallen them or what they and their wonderful spouse will do with their winnings.
Even finer viewing is the pretty hostess, Vanna White, who uncovers the spaces where a letter has been correctly called. She does this with a delightful tap, displaying an allure that has only increased over the years. She wears an undeterrable smile and enviably flattering clothes, usually floor-length dresses. It is also gratifying to observe the losers, especially when BANKRUPT strips them of considerable winnings, including, perhaps, the aforementioned car—run over, as it were, by Fortune’s wheel. At such times we are allowed to expend, according to our natures, either Samaritan compassion or guilty schadenfreude, both equally satisfying in different ways.
For us viewers, there is also the modest pleasure of having guessed the correct solution, perhaps even before the apt contestant. This does not fill our pockets, but it does fill our souls with justified pride for having figured out “Refreshing Coconut Water” (clue: Food and Drink) or “On the Job Training” (clue: Thing) or “An Extraordinary Experience” (clue: Event) or “Stop Texting Me I’m Cramming for Finals” (clue: Phrase) or “Superstition by Stevie Wonder” (clue: Song and Artist) or “Electric Toothbrush” (clue: Around the House). All comfortable, homey things; no Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave here.
Blurt out “The Latest Technology” (clue: Thing) 10 seconds before the hausfrau with five children or the assistant librarian from the corn belt who studies Chinese on the side, and you bask in the warmth of the halo around your prescient head.
And at the end of the program, you get to see, as they rush up to the stage to embrace the winner, the beautiful wife or the handsome husband or the beaming kinfolk or the best friend—whoever the invited rooters might be. And whatever pleasantries Sajak exchanges with them—not to mention the cute concluding duologue between Pat and Vanna, bristling with highly paid bonhomie—all this, dear home audience, you’re invited to wallow in, looking forward to tomorrow’s show—except, alas, on weekends.
John Simon is an author and critic in New York.