Clean Sweep

The prime time game show renaissance is currently in full swing on the ABC network, with past hits like Match Game, Press Your Luck, To Tell the Truth, and seemingly un-killable Family Feud going strong.

ABC is once again dipping into the well of game shows and bringing back a cult classic: Supermarket Sweep. Leslie Jones of SNL is set to host the show, which recently resumed production after shutting down due to COVID-19.

Later season logo from the Sweep

The original version of Sweep ran on ABC from 1965 – 1967; it was revived on then-fledgling cable network Lifetime from 1990 – 1995, and then again on the PAX Network (now ION TV) from 2000 – 2003. The modern incarnations (to which I’ll be referring) were hosted by king of the sweaters David Ruprecht:

He eventually moved to button-down shirts with ties, but sweaters were better

The premise was simple: 3 teams of 2 (usually 2 groups of women and 1 man/woman couple) competed for time to race around the supermarket to gather up groceries; whoever had the highest dollar total then went on to the big sweep, where they could win $5,000. To start, each team was given 1:30 for their sweep.

To add time, the contestants had to correctly answer food and brand related trivia questions: deciphering anagrams of brand names, choosing the correct answer from a list of phrases, or even taste-testing products (one lady correctly identified a frozen Dove bar by taste). For each correct answer, the team would get an additional 10 seconds for their sweep.

There were 2 trivia rounds, and the first question of each round was a ‘mini-sweep’ in which the partner of the contestant who answered correctly had to run and get the item that was the answer to the question. If they did, they got money added to their end-of-game total. The partners were then sent away, and the 3 contestants would continue; in the second round they switched and the partners would play. The last part of the trivia round was always the round-robin, in which both contestants in a team switched off answering questions. Sweep times were finalized and 1 contestant from each group was chosen to run the sweep.

The sweep part of the show had the contestants change into red, green and yellow sweaters (I’m guessing this just made it easier to tell the contestants apart for filming/commentating). The host would tell the contestants about special items that would bump up their totals, including huge inflatables with bonus stickers on them, ground coffee, 1 lb bag of candy, or ‘shopping lists’ – specific sets of items. There would also be monitors in the store that could be used to get clues for an additional special item.

One at a time, 1 contestant from each team would be released into the store with a shopping cart; they raced like crazy, grabbing the most expensive items to quickly rack up the dollars. A commentator would describe the action (Johnny Gilbert – longtime announcer for Jeopardy, commentated for the Lifetime version), and hilarity often ensued. “He races right past the clue to go for the hams!” “She’s having a hard time getting to a pound of candy!” “She found the Shake N Bake!”. When a cart was filled they’d furiously rush to the front of the store to grab another and start again.

Once time expired, the bonuses and groceries were totaled, and the team with the highest amount won the right to go for the grand prize: $5,000, hidden in the store. They were given a clue to a specially-marked product, and had to find it – that product in turn had the next clue on it, and if they found all 3 products within 1 minute, they won the cash.

So why is Supermarket Sweep a phenomenon, and why does it still hold up today? 90’s nostalgia aside, I think it’s beloved for a few reasons: first, unless you’re doing all your grocery shopping online, we all go to the supermarket. Grocery shopping in the U.S. is pretty standard, and we’ve all experienced it: the carts, the aisles, the rude people who leave their carts in the middle of the aisles…

Second, we love trivia! And this is trivia about food and brands! I don’t think anyone would argue that Americans. Love. Food. And we know and love our brands (brand loyalty is real); we recognize the slogans and logos because we’re inundated with ads. So when we answer along with the contestants, we feel smart for knowing all about the products we see on a weekly basis.

Finally, it’s fun! Who wouldn’t want to grab a cart and go tear up your local Shop Rite?! I also loved seeing the contestants’ strategies, and of course, criticizing them to no end. “Big jugs of olive oil, smart.” “Garbage pails? Are they really that expensive?” “THE NAPKINS ARE RIGHT THERE, JUST TURN AROUND BECKY!”

For the 2020 version I think they should tweak the trivia rounds to be more exciting; they were usually the weakest part – often all 3 contestants would stare blankly after a question was read, until the ‘time’s up’ buzzer went off. I think having the questions on a screen and not just read aloud would also help both the contestants and the viewers. They could also injected some comedy into the trivia, and not just rattle off facts about brands…

That said, I’m excited the show is coming back, and would be happy if they kept things mostly the same with a modern face lift. In the meantime, while the iron’s hot and Tom Bergeron needs a new gig, I think it’s time to start a change.org petition to revive Shop Til You DropM

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