[posted by Colin]
Last week I shared my opinions on the (low) quality of French television. Today, I'll share with you the brightest spot that Amy and I have found on TV here, a show called "A Prendre ou à Laisser" [Take It or Leave It]. The premise is simple and is explained in the opening credits: 22 boxes, 22 prizes, 22 candidates representing the 22 regions of France. One candidate is chosen every evening to play the game. At the end of the show, that person wins the prize in his or her box. Simple, right?
The game is played like this. The 22 prizes range in value from 1 centime to 500,000 euros. Eighteen are cash prizes, three are white-elephant prizes (one might also call them booby prizes), and one is a "Joker." At the beginning of the show, the 22 people on stage are asked a question that goes something like this: "The inhabitants of Paris are called: a) Parisians, b) Parisites, or c) snobs." The question is often about an obscure village in rural France, or some other trivial minutiae from French history. This, of course, adds a little drama—will everyone get the right answer? Often most of them do, but I have seen a question that stumped all but seven contestants. However, this little trivia question is crucial because 1) it determines the value of the joker (# of correct responses times 10,000 euros) and 2) it selects the player for the day, the first person who answered the question correctly.
Once the player du jour is selected, a video montage begins, giving the person's bio and showing photos from his or her childhood. After the video, the contestant leaves the row of tables holding the boxes and other candidates. He or she does a little turn on the catwalk (yeah on the catwalk, on the catwalk yeah), usually to some pop song with an appropriate tub-thumping bass line. Finally, he or she approaches the round table at center stage and greets the host, Arthur. If the player is a guy, Arthur will usually shake his hand; if it's a girl, he will meet her halfway, pick her up, and carry her over to her chair for the evening, offering a little kiss as he does so.
At this point, we meet the stars of the show. Arthur is a French comedian and TV host (on the left). Jean-Louis is a huissier de justice
(or, as Amy prefers, "the hussy of justice"), which is a type of lawyer who doesn't do any trial work (perhaps someone else can explain it in more detail?). Sadly, I can't find a picture of this slightly pudgy and unnaturally tanned grey-haired man who is always smiling broadly and is accompanied by his wife, also unnaturally tanned, pleasantly plump, and attired in the most horrific outfits you can imagine (but which always seem to coordinate with Jean-Louis's suit).
Finally, it's time to begin playing the game. The contestant eliminates the other candidates' boxes one-by-one, trying to determine which prize is in his or her box. From time to time, the banker—a mysterious and apparently evil man who the audience never sees—calls to make an offer to the contestant, allowing him or her to either exchange his or her box with another candidate's box or to quit the game by accepting a specific sum of money. In a perfectly choreographed and melodramatic fashion, a generous monetary offer from the bank elicits cheers from the studio audience, while a bad offer (I've actually seen the bank offer 1 euro) draws hisses, whistles, and booes. The game ends when the contestant either takes the prize in his/her box or accepts a monetary offer from the bank. Whatever he or she wins is shared with a viewer of the show (French TV shows love
offering phone numbers to call in for stuff like this).
Okay, by now you've probably realized that this is an incredibly lame game. Yet, what Amy and I love about it is the style of presentation. As with most of the game shows here, there are frequent music breaks—on this show, a candidate may sing or others may encourage someone to dance on the table. Roughly once every other week, the candidates get so wound up that they all climb up on the tables and dance. The show also offers corny theme shows from time to time, with the candidates dressed in outrageous outfits. Among the themese, "A Farmer's Christmas," "Astérix" (a popular cartoon here), "Gangster Night," and "Miss/Mr. A Prendre ou A Laisser" have all taken place since we've been watching.
The banter between Arthur and the candidates is great, too (and great practice for our aural comprehension). Arthur's antics are always good for a laugh, and would generally get him arrested for sexual harassment in the US. For example, about once a month he sees how quickly he can kiss all of the female contestants. On another occasion, he laid down on the table in front of two beautiful female contestants, lounging and ignoring the banker's calls (eventually Jean-Louis took his place at the phone); eventually someone brought out some grapes and the girls fed him like a Roman emperor. Yet another time, Arthur was teasing the evening's contestant, telling her that she was making the show too risqué and was threatening the morality of everyone in the audience. He grabbed a girl from the audience, threw her over his shoulder and ran her over to the exit of the studio; he continued doing this for a few minutes. Then, during the commerical break, he emptied an entire section of the audience.
Unfortunately, it's devastating when a contestant ends up winning one of the booby prizes—we've seen contestants win a feather, a boa, and a tutu. And when I say devastating, I mean an absolutely crushing, demoralizing, wind-out-of-your-sails kind of defeat. Almost every night people are crying on this show. One week, people had been crying so much that a box of Kleenex was added to Arthur's round table. And it's not just the women, either. A few nights ago, a very macho firefighter finished his episode with puffy red eyes, tear-streaked cheeks, and soaked sleeves on his sweater.
We're not entirely sure why the candidates cry so much, though Arthur plays a significant role in this. Not long ago, a girl was playing who planned to use the money she won to pay for her wedding. She had stuck it out all the way to the end, turning down every offer from the bank. Only two boxes remained, hers and one other; one contained 250,000 euros, the other a mere centime. The show was running ahead of schedule, so Arthur had to kill time. That's when he laid into her—"If your box has the 250,000 euros, you will have the most beautiful wedding ever, the wedding of your dreams, the wedding you've been fantasizing about since you were just a little girl. But...[long dramatic pause]...if your box has the centime, what will happen? You turned down an offer of 80,000 euros. What will your fiancé think? Will he support you? Will he still love you?" Ouch. The last one was just a low blow. She ended up winning the 250,000 euros, which brought the house down!
The music is worth talking about, too, since I'm a musicologist. It's mainly film scores and popular music. The film music is always over the top. When the contestant is faced with a tough choice, cue the Russian choir. When the contestant finds a big box (indicating that they cannot win that prize), cue the funeral march and the demonaic laugh of the banker. When the contestant finds a small prize, cue the Rocky theme. The show's producers also find out the contestant's favorite songs and have them all cued up to play at key moments, thus inducing more tears.
My favorite moment on the show, however, happened two weeks ago. A lovely young woman was playing that evening, and was having an incredible draw. Only two boxes remained, one containing 100,000 euros, the other with 500,000. The banker called to offer the girl an opportunity to exchange boxes. Arthur asked about the importance of the numbers on the boxes. Box #20, her box, was the lucky one, since her mom's birthday was on the 20th; box 15, the other candidate's box, meant nothing to her. "So, the choice before you is: do you remain faithful to your mother, the woman who raised you and who loves you so much, or do you take this other box, which has had some mysterious attraction for you this evening? You've been offered an exchange. Do you take it or leave it?" Before she could answer, however, Arthur went to work. Still ignorant of the contents of the boxes, he walked slowly over to the other box. Placing his hand on it, he launched into a five-minute stalling tactic. He recounted her progress for the night, her incredible luck. Never had the show seen such an incredible draw. Never had somebody turned down an offer from the bank of 250,000 euros. "But," he continued, "you have remained faithful to your mother. Faithful to the woman who carried you in her womb for 9 months. Faithful to the woman who nursed you until you were big enough to eat. Faithful to the woman who raised you. Faithful to the woman who has held your head to her chest on so many difficult occasions." By now, the girl was a wreck, sobbing uncontrollably. But he wasn't done yet, "But was this the right choice? Has your mother's memory brought you 500,000 euros or has that memory betrayed you into losing that prize and the offer of 250,000 euros? If so, was it worth it to remain so faithful to your mother? Of course, she was the woman who carried you in her womb and nursed you and raised you and comforted you." After five minutes of this monologue, the girl was hysterical. Standing at the round table, she started pounding on the box and shouting, "Yes, yes, yes! I love my mother! I'll always be faithful to her, no matter what! I'll keep my box! I'll keep my mother! I'll keep it!"
The bad news: she only won 100,000 euros. The good news? She won 100,000 euros and her mom still loves her.