Picks and Pans Review: Let the Games Begin

updated 06/16/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/1986 01:00AM

For this column and the next, I watched more than 15 hours of game shows. And my boss thinks that watching TV isn't real work. Ha! But it was worth the effort, for I found the best and the worst of game shows, covered this week. Next week I'll give prize shows prizes of my own.

'ROUND AND 'ROUND IT GOES AND WHY IT'S A HIT, NOBODY KNOWS

A 2½-year-old friend of mine named Alex loves one TV show above all others: Wheel of Fortune. At 7:30 every night, with his security blanket in hand and mouth, he sits Krazy-Glued to the tube, his eyes as big and round as the wheel he's watching. He likes to play Wheel of Forch, as he calls it, with anyone he meets. He asks, "Can I have a B?" When people look at him strangely, Alex shakes his head and says, "No B." Pat Sajak and Vanna White were not his first words, but they surely were among his first 100. Yes, it's true: Young Alex is a Wheelie. He's not alone. I know of a young girl who watches every night just to see what color outfit Vanna White is wearing. I also know of a 70ish grandmother who watches Wheel religiously, and whenever she sees Vanna, she can't help saying, "What a figure!"

So this isn't to say that Wheel of Fortune is meant just for 2-year-olds. Well, it is. But there's a more important point: Maybe Wheel is not just a fad or a fluke. Maybe there is a new generation of fans and fanatics learning to love Wheel even before they learn to walk. And maybe the show's inexplicable appeal to children and animals helps explain the unbelievable fact that Wheel is the highest rated syndicated series in the history of TV, with about 14 million homes tuned in each day.

But I like Wheel. It's the best game show today. It's the ideal game show. There's a tad of excitement to seeing the wheel spin, flirting with "Bankrupt." I can't help playing along. Sometimes I feel smart when I beat the contestants and guess the name or phrase or thing that sly Vanna's hiding; sometimes I feel dumb when they beat me. That's a small challenge, as much as most people would want from TV. Wheel is inoffensive; Sajak doesn't smile too much, and the contestants don't shriek too much (though the audience does ooh too much). As with any game show, I enjoy making fun of my fellow man from the privacy of my home. I get that chance with Wheel when the winners wince as they're forced to use the money they've won to buy tacky prizes at full retail.

What fascinates me most is host Pat Sajak. Pat Sajak, Beaver Cleaver grown up. Pat Sajak, inspiration for Saturday Night Live skits. Pat Sajak, guest host on Friday Night Videos. Pat Sajak, superstar. Pat, however, doesn't take himself or his show too seriously. With his quiet, exceedingly subtle sense of humor, he raises his eyebrows as he says, "We'll be back for more...frivolity." Pat, it seems, knows the secret to Wheel's wealth: The show is a camp classic.

But not everybody appreciates Wheel. After I admitted to liking the show when I was a guest on the CBS Morning News, I got hate mail. "You critics make me ill," a lady from California wrote. "Wheel of Fortune is too slow for me and Vanna White has about as much personality as a dead flea.... Her dresses are a disgrace!" Said another correspondent: "Any idiot can spin a wheel!"

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