Drowning in a sea of bills? Then it's time to play...
AIR DATES: June 3, 1996 to August 14, 1998
CREATOR: Sarah Jane West
Lifetime Productions, Faded Denim Productions
HOST: Wink Martindale
WATCH IT HERE: Season 1 on YouTube; Season 2 on YouTube
I have to admit something to everyone; so far as I know, I am NOT in any kind of debt. I paid off my credit card about a year ago and have paid off every month since. All my bills are paid on time. I'm even saving at time of writing to finance a new car. Now, I'm not bragging; I live by myself in a rent-controlled apartment complex so my bills are quite managable. But I know about debts; I had college loans to pay off, after all. And I know that, sometimes, families have massive bills to pay. Hell, my younger brother is probably still paying off medical expensives. But, while many game shows offer money to help pay off these bills, only "Debt" had the courage to take it a step further and tell contestants, "Gather up your bills and credit card statements and, as long as it's only four digits big, you can play a Jeopardy!-style game to wipe those debts away...AND even give you money so you can start amassing MORE debts! Pretty cool, eh?!"
HOW WAS IT PLAYED?
Three contestants (which Wink called "contesti" half the time in the beginning) start the game. Each one has amassed a debt between $6000 and $10,000. To keep the game fair, their debts are averaged and each contestant starts out with that amount (denoted in negative dollars).
ROUND 1 ("GENERAL DEBT")
In the first season, the contestants are shown five categories with five questions ranging from -$50 to -$250. Whoever had the smallest debt before averaging would pick a category and amount. Just like J!, the higher the amount, the harder the question. The host then gives a questioning statement starting with "I am...". Contestants buzz-in and try to answer the question starting with, "You are...". A right answer subtracted the amount of the question from their debt. A wrong answer ADDED the amount to the debt. The one with the last right answer then chose from the board, able to pick a new category and/or amount.
One question was designated the "Debt-onator" as it was considered by the producers as the hardest question of all the others. Regardless of the initial amount, the question was worth $500 taken off the debt.
The rules changed a fair bit in the second season. There are still five categories with five questions. But, once a contestant chose a category, the host would go through all five questions, from least-expensive to most-expensive. An initial question was asked before the round begins worth -$1 and first choice of category. Also, instead of one QUESTION being the "Debt-onator", one entire CATEGORY was desginated and all questions in that category were doubled. (And, though the questions still started with "I am...", it was no longer necessary to answer with "You are..."; just the answer will do.)
In both seasons, play continued until all 25 questions were asked or time expired. After that, the player with the most remaining debt was eliminated from the rest of the game, getting a consolation prize of a piggy bank and a $200 savings bond.
ROUND 2 ("GAMBLING DEBT")
Five categories are revealed, one at a time. The contestants would go back and forth betting how many out of five questions in the given category they can get right (just like the second round of "Wipeout"). When someone challenges the other to "Prove it!" or someone bids all five questions, the contestant who won the bidding gets asked the questions one at a time. Questions were asked until the contest fulfilled their bid or is unable to do so with questions remaining. If they fulfill their bid, they get money deducted from their debt. Otherwise, their opponent gets it removed. The five categories are worth -$300, -$400, -$500, -$750, and -$1,500. The one with less remaining debt starts the bidding on the first category and, after that, whoever won the previous category starts the bidding.
Play continues until all five categories are played or one contestant cannot catch-up to the other with the category amounts remaining. Whoever has the higher debt leaves with a piggy bank and a $500 savings bond. The champion goes to the bonus round.
BONUS ROUND ("GET OUT OF DEBT"/"BET YOUR DEBT")
The first part of the bonus round is "Get Out of Debt". The champion is told of a category that the questions will fall under. Then the host asks sixty seconds worth of questions in said category. The object is for the champion to answer ten questions in that time frame. If they do, their entire debt that they came in with is paid off. If not, the champion keeps all the money earned in the first two rounds.
In either case, the champion gets the chance to "Bet Your Debt". Before the show started, they were asked to pick a specialty pop-culture category. If the champion wishes to answer one fairly-hard question about said category and gets it right, the money won (whether the size of their debt or the money earned in the last two rounds) would be doubled. If it is answered wrong, they lose the money accumulated but still leave with a savings bond: $1000 if they lost "Get Out of Debt", $1500 if they won it. The champion can choose NOT to risk their winnings and leave with the money collected; the question is then just asked for "shiggles".
The basic premise of the show was that, if you win the bonus round, you "leave with nothing". That's not something you normally hear on a game show and it's an interesting concept. You go in with a mountain of debt, you leave with that paid off and...nothing else. At face value, it doesn't sound that great. But I'm sure that, for those who were seven or eight grand in the hole, it was the best news they've had in months, if not years.
The set was pretty cool...in the first season. Actual "trilons" in a late 90s game show? Not THAT'S playing to nostalgia! Not so much when they switched to all monitors in the second season but, still, both sets worked.
Always great to see one of the masters at work again. Wink and his 68 pearly whites were still awesome, just like his previous show "Trivial Pursuit" and his most recent one, "Total Recall". I'm sure it was this performance that cemented his place in the American TV Game Show Hall of Fame a decade later.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK?
This was CLEARLY a Jeopardy! ripoff. Nothing WRONG with that, mind; if you're gonna rip off a quiz show, might as well rip off the best, right? But it was just SO obvious in the first season. The fact that the categories and clues were in ROWS instead of COLUMNS does nothing to detract that fact. And "Debt-onator" might as well be "Daily Double". I wouldn't be surprised if Merv Griffin didn't threaten a lawsuit if they didn't change it...and so they did.
Speaking of the "Debt-onator", anyone else think it was cheesy that they shook the camera when they revealed it...and EXTRA cheesy that Wink told the contestants to "hold on" as they did? Sure, Wink was just being Wink...but, c'mon.
One major problem given by some viewers is the whole "contesti" deal. (Apparantly, they didn't know that Ken Ober did it on "Remote Control" over a decade before.) I had no problem with it myself, but I guess I can understand the point of the "grammar Nazis"; if this is to be a serious game show, a veteran like Wink shouldn't be butchering the English language.
WOULD IT WORK TODAY?
The premise itself would work. But, given that Americans are in even greater debt that they were in the late 90s, I don't think any studio/channel would be willing to put up the scratch for it. And, yes, I'm including Sony even though they give away about $200,000 a week with "Jeopardy!" "Wheel of Fortune". Speaking of, if someone DOES want to try the premise, they had better make sure Sony's OK with the J!-style gameplay. Otherwise, forget it!
NEXT TIME: Another American dream: an 80s place to call home...
Chris Wolvie only has 22 natural off-whites (no wisdom teeth and six root canals). Follow him on Twitter @ChrisWolvie and e-mail him at email@example.com.