Last night, after “Modern Family” ended and before the new sitcom “Happy Endings” began, in that wasteland of ABC television’s programming called “Cougar Town,” my wife and I flipped through the four channels our digital antenna pulls in searching for a half hour of interim entertainment. We landed, for a brief time, on “Minute to Win It.”
As we watched two normal-looking, relatively attractive young women compete against each other at a “game” that involved balancing six dice on a tongue depressor clenched in each of their mouths, I had the feeling that something was very wrong. At that point, it was just a feeling, like a disturbance in the force. But, because I was sitting bored on the couch, that feeling turned into a tweet, which read, “Minute to Win It embodies embodies everything that is wrong with this country. Ugh.”
I probably would have left it at that hyperbolic statement if not for a good friend of mine, who is always quick to challenge any of the many broad statements I make, questioning me – also via Twitter. As he said, “You know I won’t let you get away statements like that.”
So, I spent all last night thinking about why I felt that this otherwise innocuous game show embodies everything that is wrong with the United States. I had some ideas by the time I woke up this morning, but lacked a framework. That is, until I read the New York Times’ front page story about the conviction of inside trader Raj Rajaratnam of the Galleon Group.
If you haven’t read the article, I recommend it. Peter Lattman and Azam Ahmed’s telling of the story is so riveting that, even though I hardly ever read any news about finance, I devoured their piece. Rather than telling Rajaratnam’s story directly, they tell of his “web of friends,” the various coworkers and colleagues who provided him with illegal information.
Suddenly, it became clear. Raj Rajaratnam was the game show host, he was “Minute to Win It’s” Guy Fieri. And his “friends” were his contestants.
See, the premise of “Minute to Win It” is that normal people will do absolutely any ridiculous thing you ask them to do if you wave enough money in front of them. In addition to the tongue depressor game I mentioned above, there was also a challenge that involved bouncing pencils into glasses. That, if I remember correctly, was going to earn the contestant $100,000. And these, my research reveals, are relatively low key compared to some of the other games.
Similarly, the Times’ piece features a cast of characters, some pitiable, others infuriating, who will do whatever Rajaratnam asks in order to make an extra buck, or an extra five hundred thousand bucks. Both “Minute to Win It,” and the Galleon scheme operated on the fact that, if the prize is great enough, people will do anything. Fieri’s minions perform humiliating stunts, and Rajaratman’s break the law. And both are compensated accordingly.
It isn’t enough, though, to point out that people will do anything for money. Aside from the fact that capitalism is a system that exploits that weakness, there isn’t anything particularly American about it. The problem, I think, is much more systemic. The culture of Wall Street created the perfect opportunity for a person like Rajaratman, and the countless others like him, to thrive. But, at this point, I’m going to leave his case alone as I’m a bit out of my depth in discussing the particular failings of Wall Street.
When it comes to “Minute to Win It,” it seems clear to me that the very fact that the show is successful, that people watch it and imagine themselves similarly humiliated for cash, is a loud endorsement of this culture of greed. But, perhaps even more disturbing, is the person of Fieri himself. This is a man who rose to fame by winning a game show, “The Next Food Network Star.” This afforded him the opportunity to host his own cooking show, and then to go on to host “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” in which his job was to travel around the country eating the most unhealthy, and sometimes flat-out disgusting, food you can imagine.
Now, as the host of “Minute to Win It,” he’s the guy to emulate. He’s the person that holds the cash in front of his contestants’ faces and tells them what to do. Guy Fieri is the man to be. This overweight, middle-aged, game show winner-turned-host who dresses like a rebellious 15 year old is a person to emulate in American culture. Contestants on “Minute to Win It,” and those who watch it, believe that if they just do what the man with the spiky bleached hair says, they could achieve a portion of his bankroll, if not his fame.
Admittedly, this possibility is alluring. Just as those in Rajaratman’s network saw him as their way to a better life, so too is it easy to imagine “Minute to Win It” as a quick (a minute!) way to easy fortune. Last night, after one contestant won a significant sum of money in the pencil bouncing game, I turned to my wife and said, “That could pay off our student loans.” She, mercifully, changed the channel.
So, okay, I was definitely being hyperbolic when I tweeted that “Minute to Win It” embodies everything that is wrong with this country.” It doesn’t embody everything – just the limitless greed that, more and more, characterizes American culture.
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