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‘Supermarket Sweep’ Has Been Rebooted, but Not Retooled, for 2020

Leslie Jones has replaced David Ruprecht as the host of the grocery-centric game show, but not much else about the program has changed from its original run in the ’90s

ABC/Ringer illustration

In the annals of fantastic casting calls, consider this one:

- Do you love grocery shopping?
- Wanna go wild in the aisles?
- Ready to win some big cash?!

Is there a person who grew up under the incandescent glow of David Ruprecht, which is to say a person who spent untold hours considering the thermodynamics of frozen turkeys and screaming at a television set about holding on to the gosh-dang inflatable lightbulb and not wasting time with the friggin’ coffee are you kidding me, who would say no?

Supermarket Sweep is, at long last, back on the air, having premiered Sunday night on ABC with Leslie Jones taking the reins from Ruprecht. And it is, aside from some stiff socially distant blocking, very much the same old game. Three teams of two contestants each warm up with some early rounds of brand-infused riddles (who can identify that “stain” rhymes with Gain®? Who can recognize the Tootsie Roll logo first???), then rampage the aisles of a grocery store in search of specific products and high-value items. Those values have, erm, appreciated since the halcyon days of yesteryear: One team, for example, manages to rack up some $3,659 of goodies in a cart, compared to the ’90s vintage, which rarely cracked even half of that. The strategies remain basically the same: Grab an inflatable bacon slice, collect a cheese wheel, and, yes, hoist some hams, and glory awaits.

It must be noted that Supermarket Sweep makes for particularly surreal viewing given the realities of 2020, and the specific ways those realities have complicated the simple act of grocery shopping. Fortunately—and reasonably—this supermarket isn’t actually a supermarket, but rather a soundstage set up to look like one, which doesn’t make it less weird that this version comes with faux “employees” who sift coffee beans or pick out bouquets of roses during the sweeps on command from players. There is a small nod to, y’know, the actual staffs of grocery stores the nation over, who have continued to sell actual coffee and roses and milk and cucumbers to customers under a cloud of heightened COVID-19 danger: A real-life cashier is lauded on camera as an essential worker for helping save an equally real-life customer who had a heart attack in his store, for which Supermarket Sweep awards him $2,000 and a sweatshirt. Sure!

Jones brings her signature bombast to the role, and I am sorry to say that she has already proved divisive in the greater game-show community—which is not, as a rule, very interested in shaking things up. Jones is funny and punny and entirely more excited about refereeing a grocery store battle royale than any reasonable person ought to be. But also: It is a grocery store battle royale. We have left the land of reason for a soundstage where Meow Mix may or may not be the key to your own personal happiness.

“This was my show back in the day,” Jones says at the start of the new show. “I watched it every day. I loved David. I used to practice in the grocery store because I was going to be on this show.”

Jones is no Ruprecht, and that’s a good thing—what game show reboot has ever benefited from a new host simply doing an impression of the last one?

But what’s surprising, above all, is how little this new version of Supermarket Sweep has changed. Setting aside the squeamishness of being in a grocery store in the current environment, our relationship with brands has indisputably changed from the days when we could cheer housewives knowing just which brand of baking soda would save the day. Supermarket Sweep’s customers aren’t paid beyond whatever they take home in winnings, but perhaps they should be; isn’t delightedly holding up some name-brand tuna or screaming “Fresca!” as they sprint down an aisle kind of an ad of its own? To suggest that it isn’t would mean that the brands themselves have migrated from existing to sell items to outright and universal monuments of pop culture, which is not exactly untrue and also not exactly soothing.

But that, perhaps, is its beauty. Turn off the suspicious part of your brain, the one that grimaces when Amazon makes a too-knowing recommendation or that ponders how your phone managed to serve you an ad for the product you were just talking about yesterday. In a time like this, there’s something comforting about taking something at face value.