Ken Tucker
August 16, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
Roald Dahl

We gave it a B

This irony thing has gotten out of hand. For a while there, placing a certain knowing distance between oneself and an object of pop culture seemed smart, even healthy. After all, if you’re consuming junk, isn’t it better to acknowledge that you know it’s junk? But when the purveyors of the junk get into the act — and why wouldn’t they, since they want us to know they’re aware that they’re creating junk? — that’s when ambivalence kicks in.

Case in point: Debt, which puts an ironic spin on what is almost certainly the greatest game show of all time, Jeopardy!. But whereas Jeopardy! is delightful escapism — TV’s version of a parlor game as hosted by the ultimate butler, Alex Trebek — Debt drags both the real world and Wink Martindale into our living rooms.

On Debt, each trio of contestants owes a substantial amount of money — credit-card debt, college-tuition debt, or even, as one player said in introducing herself, ”Hi, I’m Kim, and I’m in debt because I have expensive hobbies like antiques and fine wines!” The winner of every game receives the moola needed to pay his or her respective piper. Like Jeopardy!, Debt has a big board displaying questions for contestants to choose from and requires its players to phrase their answers in an awkward way. With Jeopardy!, it’s ”What is…”; on Debt, it’s what host Martindale calls ”the ‘I am/You are’ format.” For example: ”I’m the horse the Lone Ranger always told to ‘Hi-ho!’ ” Answer: ”You are Silver.”

This format regularly results in weird poor taste: ”I’m the Latina pop sensation who was tragically killed in 1995 by the president of my fan club.” (Answer: ”You are Selena.”) Another question forced a player to say to Martindale, ”You are the Shroud of Turin.” And a recent category, ”Saturday Night Dead” (SNL cast members whose careers ”have sputtered”), included this query: ”I pumped you up as Franz, I anchored ‘Weekend Update,’ and I’m sitting by the phone right now.” If Kevin Nealon was watching, he must have been wounded, especially since one contestant guessed Dana Carvey.

Martindale, a game-show vet (”Tic Tac Dough,” ”High Rollers”), has been instructed to kitsch it up. He wears a ’70s-style tux and makes his entrance by striking a John Travolta-ish ”Saturday Night Fever” disco pose. ”Debt” has been a ratings hit for Lifetime since it premiered in June, but how long will it be before viewers tire of the overarching campiness, including categories like ”The Life & Times of Melanie Griffith”?

Such tackiness makes one appreciate Jeopardy! all the more. Host Trebek’s grim visage and barked instructions (”Quickly, players!”) are rare examples of composure and discipline on television. It also helps enormously that unlike so much dumbed-down TV, Jeopardy! continues to offer aggressively straightforward stumpers. Every fan of the show has his or her strong or weak categories. I shudder every time a game-breaking ”Final Jeopardy!” question is in ”History” or ”Sports” and was blissfully baffled by recent questions such as ”This archduchess of Austria and mother of Marie Antoinette died in 1780” (Answer: ”Who is Maria Theresa”) and ”At 12,198 feet, Pico de Teide in this Spanish archipelago is the highest peak in the Atlantic.” (The Canary Islands, silly — oops, excuse me: What are the Canary Islands.)

At a time when irony is an excuse for lax standards in just about everything, Trebek is gratifyingly picky. Having come up with the director of The Birth of a Nation, a contestant said, ”Who was D.W. Griffiths”; that final sibilant cost her some bucks: ”No! There’s no s in D.W. Griffith,” said Alex with a ferocious murmur. Over on Debt, winking Wink would probably let a debtor get away with ”Melanie Griffiths.” Debt: D; Jeopardy!: A

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