Which Price Is Right?

NBC’s Deal or No Deal,a game show for the new century.

Deal: greed vs. caution

Not having kept up with the career of Howie Mandel, I was pleased to tune into his latest gig, the U.S. incarnation of a game show called Deal or No Deal, to find that the man has mellowed since his ‘80s heyday as the house fool on St. Elsewhere and a clown-for-hire whose most famous bit involved his nostrils and a latex glove. Notably, Mandel, who once wore his curly hair in a Chico Marx coif, is now balder than Kojak. The only hair on his mug is an inverted trapezoid of soul patch imparting some edge to his lower lip. He is affable, unassuming, humming with low-key charm—all you could ask from a game-show host in these uncertain times.

When last a prime-time game show became a national sensation, the year was 1999, the Nasdaq index was doing ridiculous things, and Regis Philbin was spawning an appallingly viral catchphrase (“Is that your final answer?!”). Who Wants To Be a Millionaire was the right circus at the right time; a little knowledge and nerve could bring Joe Average a lot of dough. Deal or No Deal, which debuted to strong ratings on Monday night and runs all this week (NBC, 8 p.m. ET), is the opposite of a quiz show and does not require even the modest deductive skills of Wheel of Fortune. Its central theme is self-restraint.

Each contestant ascends to the Deal or No Deal stage to stand opposite 26 models in identical cocktail dresses—Barker’s Beauties by way of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” babes—each of them bearing a briefcase with a different dollar figure inside. The contestant selects one of the cases. There could be a penny or a million bucks or any of 24 figures in between; none of us will know until the end of the game, which is an exercise in game theory. The contestant opens the remaining briefcases, a few at a time, to find that hers was not the one with $5 or $500,000 or whatever within. Based on the dollar figures removed from contention, “the Bank,” the shadowy embodiment of a mathematical model, relays “offers” through Mandel. The Bank will give the contestant a wad of cash in exchange for her chosen case. Will the player opt for the none-too-shabby guaranteed sum or take her chances? Deal or no deal? These offers fluctuate with the apparent odds. The contestant walks away with a jackpot or chump change or perhaps a midrange sum good enough for buying a new sedan.

Despite that twisty description—and despite its appropriation of Millionaire’s ominous synthesizers and Star Trek’s set design—Deal or No Deal is clean and minimal. Though it does a fine job of building tension slowly, I suspect that it has become a smash hit in more than 30 countries because it is good to yell at. In concert with the studio audience, you get to berate the contestants as they succumb to temptation and push their luck or bless them for checking their greed. If the show takes off, America will have discovered a new spectator sport: caution.