This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Hollywood has spent actual, literal billions of dollars launching new streaming services with original content featuring any celebrity you can think of. All of them—through circumstances nobody could have predicted—arrived while you were confined to your couch during a pandemic.
Meanwhile, Netflix licensed streaming rights to a dozen or so episodes of a game show from 1990 that your nana used to watch when you got home from school, and eviscerated the competition.
I wish I could understand why everyone is watching Supermarket Sweep.
I mean, duh, I understand it; I’ve been watching it, too. At this point you could tell Americans that a rival streaming service comes with the coronavirus vaccine and they’d still be like, “OK, but when does it come on Netflix?”
Still, it’s undeniably peculiar that Supermarket Sweep, of all things, is the series that people are rabid about. By most metrics, all game shows are “of their time.” But few are as indelibly a period piece as this show.
Originally airing in the ’60s before being rebooted for the ’90s revival that we casually enjoyed 30 years ago and have devoted every waking moment to watching and thinking about now, episodes of Supermarket Sweep should supplant all future history books that talk about the decade’s sociology. (Gonna cry myself to sleep over the realization that “the ’90s” is something that will be in history books.)
The series is ostensibly an infomercial for Aquanet. It is an epic tangle of perms, teases, and curls that threatens to envelop the entire screen—and would, were it not for the loud, patterned vests and blouses screaming for attention as well. Then there’s the most frozen-in-time element of it all: grocery shopping.
Some have surmised Supermarket Sweep’s current popularity to be a sort of televised fantasy fulfillment; in the midst of this shutdown, we’ve been trained to think of food shopping as a potentially lethal activity. Even before the pandemic, the convenience of delivery services tore us away from weekly battles with the rusty wheels on shopping carts.
But I think the show is frankly too bizarre to support that thesis. I think we like it because it’s so weird.
Anyone who watches the show focuses on the climactic “sweep” segment of the episodes, in which contestants sprint up and down aisles tossing products in their carts in an attempt to run up the highest grocery bill.
What is the best strategy: Loading up on hams and turkeys, or diapers and hair dye? Who is sporting the best “I’m going to have to be running, but also I’m on TV and want to be cute” athleisure wear? And what are the actual rules about how many of each item are allowed and why contestants can’t just park in one aisle and put every item they see in their carts?
To me, the most captivating part of the show is the hyper-specific and completely ridiculous trivia contestants are forced to answer about groceries. Gameplay asking the etymology behind brand names or fun facts about random celebs’ food preferences are one thing. Expecting contestants to specifically know what a bottle of syrup, a bottle of hot sauce, or a container of salt costs to the cent is another. And they do. They know.
I understand that shopping was a part of the culture then. Coupon clipping was a Sunday activity, comparison shopping was a survivalist hobby, and people considered going to the store to be a personality trait. I also cannot relate to it at all.
My trips to Gristedes are to procure emergency items that I forgot to add to delivery shipments but need RIGHT NOW. I have no concept of what things should cost, exacerbated by the lunacy of New York City grocery prices. I go to the store to buy aluminum foil, pineapple juice, a head of radicchio, and triple A batteries, and the total is somehow $87. If you told me milk cost 30 cents or it cost $9, I would believe you.
And yet I am deeply invested in Supermarket Sweep.
What is weird about this dumb game show is how emotional it is. When contestants win the show, a prize of $5,000 that I am too lazy to do inflation math on, they combust into euphoric fits. I have never seen the human body contort in the ways it did when Beverly, in a seizure of tears, leaped into her partner’s arms after locating the final item, a bottle of Newman’s Own salad dressing. These truly unwarranted moments of joy are spiritual cocaine bumps for a game-show viewer.
What makes the “why now” question of Supermarket Sweep so hard to answer is that the show has already been available on Amazon Prime, and with many more episodes than you can currently stream on Netflix. But I do think there is something about the current times that has us shopping for comfort food. (I am unapologetically proud of that supermarket-themed metaphor, please applaud.)
My boyfriend and I have watched Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune every single weeknight since the lockdown started. We are boring people who had been home at 7 p.m. most nights before this happened, but we never watched. So why start this tradition now? I don’t know! But we did.
That’s led to the mind-meld of the past week in which Jeopardy! has been airing classic episodes from when Alex Trebek first started hosting the series. They’re ridiculous! The audience claps, boos, and groans after every single question. Contestants ring in before the clue is read. Bad fashion and casual misogyny abounds. It’s wild.
And yet I can’t even say that we’re craving the simplicity of these old game shows when at the same time we are watching Floor Is Lava, Holey Moley, and that entire genre of lunatic, extreme series.
So why is Supermarket Sweep so popular right now? I truly do not have the answer. Great column, Fallon.