Like many of pop culture’s defining moments, everyone remembers where they were on Friday, June 8, 1984, when an ice-cream-truck driver by the name of Michael Larson repeatedly pressed his luck on Press Your Luck and ended up taking home $110,237 in winnings, at the time the single biggest one-day total on a game show. I was lying on my couch in front of a crappy fan, because it was oppressively hot, and that’s where I spent most of my summer days. However, it was an exhilarating hour. Although in the years to come, we’d learn that Michael Larson had not cheated exactly, but had figured out a pattern while watching the show at home, which he exploited for tremendous gain at the time. Unfortunately, he lost all of his winnings within two years, including $50,000 he lost in a burglary, after which he kind of lost the threads on his life and ended up on the lam after getting involved in an illegal pyramid scheme before dying of throat cancer in 1999. (There’s a terrific This American Life segment on the guy.)
None of this has anything to do with the new version of Press Your Luck hosted by Elizabeth Banks on ABC, but that Larson episode remains one of those television moments I will never forget. Banks’ version of the show, on the other hand, is a little more forgettable. It’s been glammed up, the Whammy animation has improved, the show has been extended to a full hour, and Elizabeth Banks is a significant upgrade over Peter Tomarken, but it still feels mostly like a game show that only bored kids would enjoy; but unlike Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, it’s not necessarily targeted at children.
The format for the first half of the show is virtually the same. Banks asks some softball trivia questions, which the chirpy, overly enthusiastic contestants answer in order to collect spins. The real action, however, is in those spins: In the first two rounds, the contestants try to collect cash and prizes without blanking out all their earnings by hitting a Whammy, which results in an animated devil popping up on screen, saying something lame but pithy, and zeroing out the contestant’s winnings. At the end of two rounds, whoever has the most earnings advances to the bonus round. The first two rounds grow fairly tedious, as Banks repeatedly asks, “Press or pass,” and the contestants repeatedly pump their fists and exclaim, “I’m going to press! my! luck!”
The back half of the show is the bonus round, and it actually is a lot more exciting than in the original show. The winning contestant plays a series of rounds in which he or she has to spin several times and at the end of each round, they can decide whether to move on or not. The contestant keeps going until she or he hits four Whammys or decides to end the game. It’s also technically possible for a contestant to win $1 million (this will probably never happen, although in the first show, the winning contestant does take home a tidy $70,000 in cash and prizes).
It’s bizarre to see Banks in this role, if only because she looks a little like Effie Trinket (see above), but she sounds just like her Pitch Perfect character, only there’s not a note of sarcasm in her voice. She plays it completely straight, and while she acquits herself well, she doesn’t display a lot of personality, which I suppose is par for the course where it concerns game show hosts. By the end of the bonus round, however, she does invest in the contestant’s game, and it’s kind of fun to see her root on the contestant. The stakes are also a bit higher because the contestant’s loved one comes on stage and prizes tailor-made for the couple are put on the board, so there are tears involved when a gay couple with a new baby, for instance, wins three years-worth of baby stuff.
Ultimately, I suppose that Press Your Luck does what summer network television should: It mindlessly helps people with nothing else to do pass the hour, although I expect it’s not something I’ll revisit. Not even my nostalgia for Whammys and the presence of Elizabeth Banks can erase the fact that there is no skill whatsoever involved in this game show: It really is just an hour watching overly excitable people test their dumb luck.