Are you and your loved ones good people? (Are you sure?) Television, which is full of despicable protagonists and power-hungry snakes, seems to hardly care whether people are any good. It usually assumes that we’re all unrepentant jerks — and why not? Have you noticed the state of the world? The greed, the lying, the name-calling, the general misconduct?
NBC’s prime-time game show ‘‘The Wall,’’ in addition to being a thoroughly watchable anxiety-release valve with an average audience of nearly 6 million viewers in its current Monday time slot, has made sure to emphasize that the pairs of Americans it seeks out and selects as contestants are ‘‘good people’’ who deserve to win.
Most often they are married straight couples, but sometimes they are siblings, or lifelong friends, or a parent and an adult child. There are subtle references to faith, or a commitment to community and country.
‘‘Good things happen to good people. It makes me so happy to see that,’’ said the show’s relentlessly excitable host, Chris Hardwick, on an episode earlier this season in which Ryan, a combat flight instructor from Georgia, and his wife, Stephenie, an elementary-school employee, managed to win $570,344 in a game that seems simple enough at first, yet maddeningly unpredictable in its outcome.
Goodness and virtue have been the show’s common refrains since its 2016 premiere. ‘‘You’re such a strong, inspiring couple,’’ Hardwick said on another episode. And ‘‘these are good, caring people.’’ And ‘‘you’re such a sweet, adorable couple.’’
Some viewers welcome that seal of approval. Others hear a churchy tone in all the mentions of ‘‘good people,’’ a judgment call in the typically equalizing genre of game shows. Like the artificially flavored patriotism that overtook sports broadcasting, ‘‘The Wall’’ can make you wonder: What is this righteous assertion of character doing in a ginormous throwback to Plinko, a contest popularized eons ago on ‘‘The Price Is Right”?
The message of ‘‘The Wall’’ is that not just anybody gets to play. These game-show contestants are also exemplary citizens. In 29 episodes over two seasons so far, they have been ethnically and racially diverse, but, more notably, they are all smack-dab in the middle class — a demographic often portrayed as an endangered species. People in top-earning professions aren’t seen on ‘‘The Wall”; neither are the poor or chronically unemployed. ‘‘The Wall’’ prefers people whose plan for spending their potential winnings are sensible, generous, and sometimes entirely charitable. Money means something to them. They can be thrilled to walk away with five-figure sums.
Andrew Glassman, one of the show’s executive producers (who also include NBA star LeBron James), said the caliber of contestant is part of the show’s success. Glassman loved ‘‘Deal or No Deal’’ — the glitzy, ‘‘screaming at briefcases’’ NBC game show that was a big hit a decade ago — but he noticed that he would root against contestants who seemed too greedy or self-absorbed.
‘‘All I can do is put myself in the position of the viewer,’’ Glassman said. ‘‘I personally don’t feel that narrative of greed would work in today’s climate. Positive energy is such a rare commodity these days.’’
Glassman, who once worked as a TV news reporter in Philadelphia and New York, remembers how his grandmother used to watch the news and then ask him why all the stories were downers. It’s a common complaint: Where are the good stories about people doing good things? ‘‘The cabdriver who finds the lady’s purse and returns it. A story like that would jump out [and] last for days,’’ he said.
When James heard that ‘‘The Wall’’ would emphasize the deserving nature of contestants trying their best to beat the game, he was sold. ‘‘He said, ‘That’s everything I want to stand for,’’’ Glassman recalled. There’s a glimpse of James at the opening of every episode, endorsing the good-people concept. NBC says the show has given away more than $11 million.
Sometimes the contestants’ good deeds are indeed heroic. One recent episode featured a combat veteran with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star (host Hardwick, who is also an executive producer of ‘‘The Wall,’’ always makes certain to emphatically thank any and all for their military service). Another episode featured a New Jersey transit cop who pulled a man off the tracks a split second before an oncoming train barreled through. In another, viewers rooted for a D.C. police officer who helped raise his younger brother, now a college professor.
‘‘The Wall’’ celebrates social workers, church leaders, and other volunteers, as well as some people who simply exhibit basic kindness: One contestant carried an elderly woman across an airport tarmac during an evacuation that followed a mass shooting in Fort Lauderdale. Another is a Bloomington, Ill., garbage man who became a neighborhood Instagram sensation for greeting his customers with a mile-wide smile and positive attitude.
On a recent episode, the show’s definition of good people expanded to include a gay couple — a demographic that had, for some viewers, been noticeably overlooked.
‘I personally don’t feel that narrative of greed would work in today’s climate. Positive energy is such a rare commodity these days.’
Meet Steve and Nick from Akron, Ohio, recently married after 13 years together. ‘‘We created this show to give good things to good people,’’ Hardwick told the men, ‘‘and we believe you are good people.’’ An intro segment showed Steve helping elderly neighbors with yard work and other chores; Nick was praised for his devotion to his large Italian family. Steve and Nick want to adopt a baby, but it’s expensive, and that’s why they’re playing ‘‘The Wall.’’
After the frenetic ‘‘free fall’’ ball drops to establish a potential minimum prize amount, Steve was sent to a soundproof isolation booth to answer trivia questions, while Nick remained onstage with Hardwick, where he had to figure out how many balls to release through the Wall’s fateful maze of spokes, based on how well he thought Steve would answer more questions.
When contestants are reunited at the end of the game, the one who was in the booth has to reveal whether he or she signed a contract for the guaranteed minimum; the other player, in an equally measured tone and gentler version of a poker face, has to reveal to their partner whether that was the most profitable choice.
In several cases, including an episode two weeks ago, the ball-droppings lead to euphoria (with a high balance) followed by disaster (a zero balance). Cody, a firefighter from Spokane, had to reassure his wife, Brooke, that he still loved her, even though she had torn up the contract. They left with nothing. It was the ultimate test of how good these loved ones can really be to one another under enormous stress, and it’s impossible to watch this part of ‘‘The Wall’’ without squirming — or tearing up.
In Monday’s nail-biting conclusion (spoiler alert), Steve opted to sign a contract that guaranteed him and Nick a smaller win of $89,891, rather than risk the chance that Nick had ended up at a zero balance.
That meant they missed winning the nearly $900,000 Nick had luckily amassed. Nick nevertheless held Steve’s hand and talked not about what they’d lost, but about what they’d gained. ‘‘It’s OK,’’ he told his husband. ‘‘I don’t care because I love you so much.’’
Hardwick, who makes a convincing case that he honestly shares in his contestants’ joys and disappointments, brought the men in for hugs and said once more: ‘‘These are very good people.’’
Steve and Nick’s appearance on ‘‘The Wall,’’ while a minor triumph of inclusion, emphasizes how much more work the show could do to broaden its definition of ‘‘good people’’ beyond the conspicuously so.
The show goes on hiatus after next week’s episode, and NBC hasn’t officially said when or if it will return — although it should, not only for its entertainment value, but because it acts as a suitable antidote to all the content that’s designed to depress and disturb us.
But it would be better to see ‘‘The Wall’’ (which has been replicated in several other countries) take an important next step and find some good people on society’s margins who are almost always being judged negatively. ‘‘The Wall’’ should find a pair of contestants who are recent immigrants to the United States or a pair of ‘‘dreamers’’ hoping for legal citizenship. It should feature contestants who seek redemption or forgiveness — a recovering addict, an ex-convict or perhaps an absent parent looking to make amends.
It’s no secret that Americans have been goaded into disapproving of one another. ‘‘The Wall’’ may only be a game show, but its sincerity offers an opportunity to find the good in us among our countless and mutual flaws.
Midseason finale airs Monday at 8 p.m. on NBC.