For more than four decades, Supermarket Sweep has zeroed in on a primal urge: Who among us hasn’t wanted to grab a shopping cart and fill it up with as much free food as possible? That impulse explains why the game show is as much Walking Dead as any of that series’ offshoots cluttering AMC’s schedule: It keeps coming back, whether we want it to or not. Its latest incarnation, which premiered last night on ABC with new host Leslie Jones, arrives with several updates and twists — not the least of which is its resurrection in the Covid-19 era.
For those who weren’t born when its first or subsequent editions aired, Supermarket Sweep places contestants in an oversized market that seems to stock multiples of just about everything one would need. Some of the rules have changed over time, but at its core, the players (teams of two) compete in answering food- or product-related questions, then race through the supermarket set with their carts for about two minutes, loading up along the way; the team with the biggest tally — that is, the highest combined dollar value of all the goods — wins.
When it first premiered on ABC in 1965, Supermarket Sweep reflected and exploited the booming consumerism of post-World War II America. (Not surprisingly, it was conceived by an ad executive.) Still, its timing was as off as a spoiled carton of milk: It debuted right before the Christmas holidays, and TV critics lunged. One called it “a series that promotes and encourages greed … and the notion of something for nothing and the value of taking (as opposed to giving) in Christmas week.” Another mocked the idea that “to run amok in supermarkets was some sort of contribution to American culture.”
That initial incarnation of Supermarket Sweep lasted only two seasons, but, in 1990, it was resurrected on Lifetime. That year, the country entered a recession, so the idea of people scrambling for free food felt a little more plugged into the zeitgeist. That edition ran for several years, and was revived yet again in the early 2000s — a post-9/11 period when the country wanted to be reassured that at least some comforting aspect of our daily lives (fully stocked grocery stores) wasn’t endangered.
Each time around, Supermarket Sweep has been a screen grab of America. The original series now looks like lost black-and-white episodes of Mad Men: The white-couple contestants are clearly divided between the breadwinners (the husbands) and the shoppers (their wives, many sporting beehives). The 1990 reboot, which ran for a few years, couldn’t be more Nineties, with contestants in matching bright sweatshirts and host David Ruprecht sporting an endless stream of sweaters that made you want to readjust the contrast and brightness settings on your remote. Watching it on Netflix (where it seems to have acquired something of a cult following), it feels so unreal — more sitcom than reality show — that you half expect someone like Tim Allen to wander in and crack corny jokes about faulty cash registers.
Naturally, the new Supermarket Sweep has been updated for its era; it’s still set in a supermarket, but this one is bathed in blue neon light. In general, the contestants are far more diverse than any previous Supermarket Sweep. In last night’s premiere, one of the couples included a transgender man, surely a first for any edition of the show.
That makeover extends to the show’s first person-of-color host. Much like the characters she embodied on Saturday Night Live, Jones practically bellows at the contestants, slipping in a few funny double-entendres. During one “sweep,” contestants are asked to grab a few items for Jones alone, and one of her requests is a cucumber: “Don’t ask!” she mock-huffs. “It’s me night!” It’s as easy to marvel at her over-the-top, unironic enthusiasm as it is to guess at how much she was paid to do a game show post-SNL.
(Interestingly, SNL parodied Supermarket Sweep in a 2016 skit cut from time but available online. In “Supermarket Spree,” guest host Melissa McCarthy and since-departed cast member Vanessa Bayer play the contestants, and the sight of McCarthy’s character grabbing everything in sight — from a massive slab of beef to a TV camera right from a cameraman — is an amusing poke in the eye at insane game shows and consumerism gone mad. With Jones as a real-life host, life may not always initiate art, but here, it at least imitates SNL.)
In the original, mid-Sixties Supermarket Sweep, contestants were able to add more minutes onto their shopping time by guessing the correct prices of certain products, like prunes and soup. That feature gave the show a certain real-world grounding (and makes for fascinating viewing now when you realize how cheap food was back then).
In the current revival, players advance and stack up shopping time by answering questions about specific products. The questions involve brand names and logos, and you’ll be amazed — or depressed — to see how quickly the players slap a buzzer when asked to name the bunny on Nesquik chocolate-milk packaging (that’s Quicky, apparently) or to determine which of three possible Pringles potato-chip flavors is fake (everyone seems to be aware that “Screamin’ Dill Pickle” is an actual product). One fill-in-the-blank portion asks contestants to complete “I’m cuckoo for ….” — the ad-slogan equivalent of those TV Guide crossword puzzles that contained clues like “Diff’rent ——-.”
When contestants have to guess the names of food manufacturers or specific products by way of logos that are revealed one piece at a time, Supermarket Sweep takes a even bigger leap into product-placement heaven. The contestants’ unabashed thrill at recognizing the logo for, say, a particular type of detergent is almost disquieting (and must be the worst nightmare for Neil Young, who devoted an entire album to bashing Monsanto). In the world of Supermarket Sweep, mass-produced grocery store goods are more than just comfort food; they’re your best friend.
Plans to reboot the series date back to 2017, and ABC announced it had landed the show in January — two months before the Covid lockdown. (Filming began in July, and although neither Jones nor any of the contestants are masked, the network claims that safety protocols and social distancing were observed.) But in the coronavirus era, there may not be a more perfectly timed show than Supermarket Sweep. The sight of people frantically racing up and down aisles, lunging for piles of meat products and king-size paper goods and beverages, suddenly doesn’t feel like wish fulfillment. It feels like life in America for the past six or seven months. A game show once steeped in fantasy now feels perhaps a bit too entrenched in reality — or, at least, core survival instincts. It makes you realize we’ve been living in a real-life Supermarket Sweep for a while; we just didn’t realize it.