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‘Supermarket Sweep’ Is Here to Cure—or at Least Alleviate—Boredom

With a reboot on the horizon and old episodes circulating on Netflix, the grocery store frenzy is on

Netflix/Ringer illustration

I don’t know for sure if boredom is a universal trait of childhood. Maybe it is—you can’t possibly have very much going on, pre-any kind of independence and/or frontal lobe development. But maybe it’s not universal? Are today’s 8-year-olds bored senseless, too, or has the collapse of civilization’s total extant entertainment product into a wormhole of endlessly curated and very online super-content made it so that they always have something to do, something to watch, someone to talk to? I lean that way. (Kids these days!)

Anyway. If you are of a certain age—which is to say, old enough to remember a pre-internet life, but young enough not to have done one single significant thing during it (apart from learning to read and trying maybe even several different vegetables)—you remember the ’90s, and you remember being bored, too. My bored ’90s, perhaps like yours, were spent in large part around a television. I remember boring, hot afternoons. I remember boring, hot hours of game shows.

I remember the boring, hot glory of Supermarket Sweep.

You may once again find yourself watching the shrieking supermarket sensation, which has migrated into the once and future boredom of Pandemic 2K20, in the form of a whole batch of ’90s episodes delivered to Netflix like so many tubs of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.

During the show’s original 1960s run on ABC, filming took place in actual supermarkets. Production moved in after the stores closed on Saturday night and filmed the games on Sunday and Monday night before uprooting to another market for the next round of taping—a practice that in theory led to people racing through the very stores where they did their normal shopping. It debuted with host Bill Malone, who was described as having “captured the hearts of the nation’s housewives.” Malone, who at the time was a broadcaster for the Washington NFL team, found himself a little befuddled by the experiment: “I’ve always associated with professional football teams,” he said, “and the idea of a bunch of women in a supermarket didn’t appeal to me much in the beginning.”

The premise of the Supermarket Sweep episodes that are currently on Netflix—part of a ’90s reboot courtesy of Lifetime—was slightly different. Three pairs—mother and daughter, husband and wife, friends, suspiciously close in-laws—are selected from a studio audience. They then face off in a series of bizarro supermarket trivia—principally working out the name or price of specific items of food. It is not exactly academic stuff: You might get a thrill of personal brilliance when you beat the contestants to the answer on Jeopardy!, but working out that a puzzle wants “Velveeta” in record time is a moderately embarrassing experience.

Then the main event begins: the big sweep. Team members barrel through the lanes with a shopping cart, attempting to shovel as much merchandise as they can into the carts before time runs out. The team that racks up the most expense wins, so there they are, hurling enormous, gold-foil-wrapped hams and tiny tins of abalone and $10 jugs of mayo into their carts. In the show’s original ’60s run, only men were allowed to do the big sweep, with the ladies relegated to the sideline; when applying to compete, female contestants had to confirm that they had at least “three male relatives or close friends” between the ages of 40 and 16 to serve as a runner in their stead for what the show promised would be a “highly athletic” challenge.

Each episode ends with the winning team from the big sweep running in tandem through the aisles, working out additional riddles about different products in the hope of winning more money. They almost always do, and then they scream and gasp for air and bounce up and down and clutch their marmalade or vanilla extract or low-sodium something-something. The brands themselves sponsor much of the action, so brand names are recited early and often; the show at times provokes the vague concern that you might be watching Cold War–era propaganda from a communist nation.

Did I mention that it’s wonderful?

When Lifetime rebooted the program, the network tapped David Ruprecht, an affable musical theater star, to emcee. The revival left behind the actual grocery stores, shooting instead in a custom-built supermarket at a studio. Even still, the extra space didn’t always make the event safe:

If the voice of the narrator sounds familiar? Yup—that’s Jeopardy!’s own Johnny Gilbert. While he was busy rattling off today’s prizes to Jeopardy! contestants—Bengay! Gold Bond!—he also made time to do the play-by-play on Supermarket Sweep. It was a strange gig, to put it mildly. “Here comes Dana, powering her cart off to the opposite side of the market,” he said in one representative episode. “I’m sure her strategy is to start in the meat department. Yes! She’s going for beef roasts—three at a time! And two. And she’s moving on. We’re at the deli case and there’s Cathy building up her total doing that old favorite, the gourmet cheese toss.”

(Further muddying the waters: Ruprecht, like a certain quiz-show Canadian, also had a tendency to say “Thank you, Johnny Gilbert!” and respond to his contestants’ mundanely strange personal anecdotes with an anodyne, “Good for you!”)

The allure for the viewer, particularly a few decades into the future when a lot of the old brands have slipped from prominence, is trying to figure out how you would most lushly—that is, most unthriftily—fill your own personal cart. Would you carefully measure out a bag of Brach’s candy? Would you hoist five enormous frozen turkeys from the freezer aisle? How about that gourmet cheese toss?

Ruprecht, for his part, was pretty clear on what he would do, noting that the show’s biggest winners were the ones who raided the health and beauty aisles. “They don’t take up a lot of space in the cart and they aren’t heavy,” he said in 1998. “Meat? That gets pretty heavy to push around.”

Whether through sheer coincidence or some cosmic knowledge that we all might find ourselves just a little bit more bored than usual, it’s coming back: Taping has reportedly begun on a new version of the show with Leslie Jones at the helm.