A Few Whammies
Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal (2003): 5 out of 10: Michael Larson is an out of work Ice Cream truck driver who got on the game show Press Your Luck and ran the board for over a hundred thousand dollars. This is his story.
I just reviewed a documentary about a game show scandal (Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much) and here I am on some sort of theme week or something. Though I gave both documentaries, the same score they couldn’t be more different.
Perfect Bid is about someone who broke the code in The Price is Right in the banalest way possible. He memorized all the prices of the items. In Big Bucks Michael Larson figured out that the game board had certain patterns and with the right amount of hand-eye coordination you could make a run for “Big Bucks” and not lose.
If you are unfamiliar with Press Your Luck, it is a very simple trivia contest followed by a combination video game/ slot machine with not just prizes but little cartoon whammies that if you landed on them would cost you all your winnings. The chance of landing on a whammy was one in six. It was a good game that was entertaining even without the most dynamic contestants or host. What Larson figured out is that there were spaces which never got a whammy and by learning the random patterns he could hit the button just so where he always landed on those spaces. He figured how to break the house.
I got the sense that director James P. Taylor Jr. was not looking forward to doing a documentary on a game show contestant cause he paints Michael Larson like he was the prime suspect on Unsolved Mysteries. Not for the game show stuff. Everyone agrees that was slick but otherwise on the up and up. They examine his life as if we will find out about the dead hookers in his basement after the next commercial break. Unfortunately for the director, Michael made poor choices but was otherwise an unremarkable person.
So when your subject is more a loser than a serial killer, how do you fill the rest of the hour and twenty-odd minutes? Hope you like Press Your Luck cause we are showing the entire episode Michael was on and even slowing it down to appear scientific in places. They also recreate the episode on a cheap soundstage with the two other contestants fifteen years later and original host Peter Tomarken who also “hosts” this documentary.
Is there enough material here for a full-length documentary? Not even close. The how Michael Larson did it is fascinating, but this is at best a half-hour episode.
Do I feel bad for director James P. Taylor Jr.? A little. Your next job is directing a feature-length film for the Game Show Network is not the news anyone wants to receive sober. When he found out his contestant was a former unemployed Ice Cream Truck driver who disappeared soon after they stole his money he has to have had high hopes for a juicy Errol Morris expose. Unfortunately for both himself and the audience, it was not to be.
Any other takeaways? Host Peter Tomarken’s outfits from the early eighties were pretty sharp with nice pastels and a tie sweater vest combo.
With way too much filler and reality TV tropes (this is the director of When Animals Attack 3 after all) the kernel of a good story gets buried by all the filler.