Is there anything more beautiful than the dual glee and panic of a boxy silhouette of tapered jeans and blinding billowing Technicolor sweaters hurtling down a supermarket aisle as if shot from a cannon in search of a specially marked bottle of Tide? Is there anything more inspiring than a blur of Dep shellacked and spackled bangs and long crunchy permed hair flying through the air, tangling in its own self-perpetuated velocity, toward the dry goods? Is there anything more ecstatic than the jarring bright whiteness of athletic sneakers against the skin-tight black leggings slip-sliding on the shining linoleum of the cereal section?
I certainly don’t think so.
Yes, that’s right. I’m talking about my newest obsession: the height of competitive consumer culture, the pinnacle of the trash aesthetic, the summit of shopping cart chaos, the apex of American capitalist mania, Supermarket Sweep. Did you think I was kidding when I mentioned writing an essay on this tacky television classic last week when stanning over Nick Cave? Well, I wasn’t. Ever since watching the fifteen episodes of merchandise madness streaming on Netflix, I’ve been stuck in a shopping spree reverie like a food-fixated fever dream out of which I can’t wake. I find myself muttering brand names in my sleep. Bounce! Hi-C! Carefree Sugarless Gum! I’m ready for the Round Robin game!
The fifteen episodes that sparked my delirious descent into purchase psychosis come from the 1990s incarnation of the game show, which was broadcast on Lifetime from 1990 to 1995, featuring the appropriately wholesome, plastered-on grin of host David Ruprecht, otherwise known as the “Baron of Brand Names.” From the first episode, with its intoxicating mix of era-defining, ill-advised fashion choices and a strong whiff of hairspray, I was hooked.
And I apparently wasn’t the only one. Recently, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Ruprecht revealed that ever since the streaming service resurrected his cheesy career, he’s been receiving some…um…interesting requests on social media: “I will say, I’ve noticed in the last three weeks, my Facebook friend requests, I mean holy shit…Pardon me, but I used to get maybe two or three a week, and now I’m getting 20 or 30 a day…They keep wanting to know: ‘How are you doing today?,’ ‘Where do you live?,’ ‘Can I get a picture with you in bare feet?’ It was one of the most bizarre requests I had ever gotten.” Sorry! I was just curious, David!
Though associated, at least in my mind, with the height of game show schmaltz in the 1990s, Supermarket Sweep actually originated during the era that birthed the trash aesthetic as we know it today: post-World War II America with the boom of mass production and expansive supermarkets. Airing from 1965 to 1967, the original Supermarket Sweep celebrated that same capitalist glut of shelves upon shelves of repetitive consumer products as the Pop artists of that era did. Let’s face it, Supermarket Sweep is basically Pop performance art for a mass audience. Move over, Andy Warhol!
Like the 1960s, the 1990s was a time of considerable economic growth, resulting in the thoroughly American impulse of shop until you drop. Sure, that decade was also defined by crises like the ongoing AIDS pandemic and the Gulf War, just as the original aired during the Vietnam War and the various clashes of white supremacists (and their supporting institutions) and Civil Rights activists. But that doesn’t enter into your mind as you’re salivating at the International Bread section!
With the fifteen streaming episodes consisting of an assortment from the 1990s, you can observe the show’s progression solely through the evolving fashion choices of that grunge-laden decade. Mostly, the ladies’ lipstick shades turn darker and darker to that ruddy brown that everyone wore in the mid-1990s for some unknown reason. Viewers can also mark time passing by the ongoing renovation of the supermarket soundstage and David Ruprecht’s face. As the show goes on, Ruprecht becomes more and more unrecognizable, as he gets tanner and more Botoxed. By the end of the episodes, he looks increasingly like someone who would be adopted by Liberace. And though his face may change, his polite demeanor, which I suspect masks a deeply veiled hatred of his life, job, and the contestants themselves, is unwavering.
Now, for those who don’t know (and how could you NOT?! How DARE you call yourselves consumers if you don’t know the exact rules of Supermarket Sweep!), the game of Supermarket Sweep goes something like this: three teams of two are called onto the set from the audience based on the shopping item they’re holding in their hands. This immediately jumpstarts the episode-long howling hysterics as shrieks and cheers follow the announcer’s proclamations of: “Who’s got the Doritos?!” “Who’s got the Love My Carpet?!” “Who’s got the Lysol disinfectant spray?!”
ME!! ME!! ME!!
While Ruprecht is the consistent figure on the show, the real stars are unquestionably these contestants–a mix of stay-at-home moms, medical assistants, flight attendants, secretaries, etc. In fact, they all seem to be perfectly formed representations of media-soaked, camera-hungry Americans who Ann Magnuson would invent in Made For TV. These paired teams of contestants are typically made up of couples, siblings, friends, or in the case of one team of Sharon and Darrell, siblings that the announcer continually refers to as a couple. Awkward! Paging Angelina and James! And THEY wouldn’t make out at the Oscars until years later! I guess nobody on the show’s staff listened to the Black contestants.
These three teams, then, compete in different games in order to add more time to their score, all leading towards the euphoric climax of the Big Sweep. These questions and games range from guessing which product costs more or less than a certain amount to picking the favorite snacks of 90s heartthrobs like Tony Danza, Scott Baio, and Mel Gibson. Unlike Jeopardy, though, which tests knowledge beyond your use as a purchasing machine, Supermarket Sweep only cares if you soaked in enough advertising to clog up your synapses with brand names and slogans. For example, let’s test your skills with a sample question:
“This dishwashing detergent shares its name with a magnificent mountain range.”
CASCADE!! *screeches in the abyss*
“If you’re looking for a fun breakfast to fix, try this tasty corn…”
KIX!! *AAAAAAAGHGHGHGHGGH* *jumps up and down*
Whew…let me catch my breath…
The real rapturous, nearly orgasmic height of the show comes down to the Big Sweep (after, of course, two absurdist Mini Sweeps) as one contestant of each team hurls themselves down the aisle to the metallic rattle of the rickety shopping cart as they attempt to out-shop one another. Filling their trolleys to the brim with the most expensive items, the team who racks up the biggest credit card debt wins a chance at finding $5000 in the aisles through a scavenger hunt. Of course, the Big Sweep’s fevered drive toward bankruptcy amounts to contestants hoisting and chucking humongous turkeys and hams, lobbing rounds of fine cheeses, and flinging large packs of diapers into their carts. Along the way, players can also nab some bonuses in the form of giant inflatable Pillsbury Doughboys, Little Sprouts, and Jolly Green Giants, which create a superbly ridiculous and spectacular sight. *hollers in excitement*
I know what you’re wondering: how could you possibly choose who to root for? Well, a lot of my energy watching the show is trying to figure out who the queers are. And there are a few that I assume are more than just bosom buddies. Roommates? Suuuuuuure. Friends for years? Okaaaaaay. I see the queer desire lurking behind those cheers of “GO GO GO GO GO!!!”
Why do I find this schmaltzy game show so gripping? First off, people losing their minds over irrational things is just my chosen aesthetic. I’m a connoisseur of camp after all! And as you can imagine all this supermarket hype whips the contestants into a pathological purchasing frenzy–sometimes even so much so that they fly off into the supermarket forgetting their cart. It’s not even for some grand prize either; at most, the teams can win around $6500. Nevertheless, the contestants work themselves up into such a lather that I thought some might have to be whisked away in an ambulance overcome by a ham-inspired heart attack or placed in a rubber room as they rant the names of various spaghetti sauces.
Even more than just the sheer lunacy, Supermarket Sweep is the perfect allegory for American consumerism–idiotic, excessive, wanton, garish, and more than a little grotesque. The supermarket soundstage is a world in which the only necessary knowledge is what marketing firms shoved down your throat and the ultimate goal is to buy as much as you can. In his book Daytime Television Game Shows and the Celebration of Merchandise, Morris B. Holbrook makes a similar observation, describing: “However positive and gentle its viewpoint, Supermarket Sweep still invites an interpretation focusing on ‘the struggle for commodities as an epic combat of clashing trolleys.’” He continues, “Symbolically, then, both The Price is Right and Supermarket Sweep reflect the obsession that many modern consumers feel with merchandise valued almost for its own sake, beyond any need or even capacity to use it, as a kind of disembodied target of desire. Disquietingly, both programs impose a frivolous but venal gaming mentality on consumption activities that in many parts of the world would inspire careful planning and involve problematic allocations of scarce resources. Disturbingly, both seem to justify a way of life in which material consumption is the target of existence. Collectively, with the other game shows, they legitimate an ethos in which Good Consumers are rewarded by Big Prizes.”
Is that not the most American thing you’ve ever heard? Of course, the American dream is all about competing for the MOST–certainly not the BEST–at the expense of all others. I mean, why not hoard piles upon piles of diapers for the baby you don’t have and vats of cooking oil you don’t need into a cart in order to spend the most amount of money?
Plus, watching the show from the peculiar perspective of 2020 presents a particularly arresting juxtaposition. Despite the Big Sweep’s psychotic similarity to the Great Toilet Paper Wars (and Lesser Paper Towel Battle) from earlier this year, as well as some well-timed looting, we’ve witnessed, through a pandemic and an economic crisis rendering many food insecure, that same American dream of plenty shatter right in front of our eyes. And even if you’re lucky enough to not struggle to buy food, grocery shopping has become a terrifying and traumatic experience, filled with pathogens, possible infections, and batshit brawls over mask-wearing. While this, of course, could make the resurrection of the show seem tone deaf and out-of-touch, I instead found it strangely nostalgic. Rather than standing six feet from someone with directions on the floor about the right way to drag your cart, wouldn’t you rather scream at the top of your lungs and grab as many turkeys as your eyes can see? I know I would.
I’m sure some of you snoozy anticapitalists will recoil in horror at the thought of loving this consumerist orgy, but lighten up, Karl Marx! As Charles Ludlam says of camp, “Admiring what people hold in contempt, holding in contempt things other people think are so valuable–it’s a fantastic standard.”
Despite wasting a lot of words on the show (I can’t help myself), I don’t believe words can perfectly encapsulate the blissful viewing experience and true artistry of Supermarket Sweep. In one of my favorite lines from a review ever, Nathan Lee writes of Jackass 2 in The New York Times (yes, that snotty rag reviewed Jackass): “You may prefer a Buster Keaton gag to the spectacle of a man leaping from a trampoline into a ceiling fan, but you can’t argue with its purity of expression.” Indeed.
And I would extend this expert observation to the aspirational camp vision of Supermarket Sweep. So in celebration of this purity of expression, take this photo essay as inspiration. And remember, the next time you’re at the checkout counter and you hear the beep, think of all the fun you can have on Supermarket Sweep!