Back in the summer, Netflix began hosting a small collection of vintage episodes of seminal ‘90s game show Supermarket Sweep, and I found myself caught up in a wave of nostalgia. Here was a series I hadn’t seen an episode of in at least 20 years, preserved like a cryogenically frozen slice of early 1990s popular culture. I ended up watching all of those episodes, enjoying them for what I ended up dubbing their “earnest stupidity.” I wondered aloud, then, whether such a guileless, blatantly advertorial concept could possibly work on modern television, given the approaching ABC reboot of the series hosted by SNL alum Leslie Jones. That series debuted in the fall, and just finished its first season.
And as it turns out … no, Supermarket Sweep doesn’t really work today, although not necessarily for the reasons I expected. Spooling through the episodes now available to stream on Hulu, I began to note that the trouble with this new version isn’t necessarily the game-ification of consumerism that has always been the central aspect of the show’s DNA. Rather, what I found disturbing was the way this Supermarket Sweep reboot highlights the worst evolutionary leaps of our own culture in the last 30 years—it’s like a microcosm of our slide into Idiocracy-style stagnation. If the ‘90s series is endearingly absurd to watch today, this new version is working much harder to be profoundly obnoxious. It’s as if it was designed with annoyance as the goal.
Who knows: Perhaps it actually was designed with that very thought in mind. Perhaps we’re meant to guffaw at the outsized egos and rampant spotlight-grubbing of these contestants in particular, so desperate are they for a brief moment with thousands of eyes fixed on them. But I don’t think so. Worse still, I think the show’s producers are imagining an audience who identifies with these contestants, and if that’s true, it speaks to a deeply obnoxious U.S. population.
Here’s the thing about the contestants in those ‘90s throwback episodes: They’re almost painfully earnest, and that’s their saving grace. From the mousy college students, to the mother-daughter alliances, to the countless housewives and homemakers, there’s never a sense that any of them have sought time in front of a camera in their lives. They’re just excited by the ridiculous prospect of running around a fake supermarket, hurling rotten hams into their cart in a joyous celebration of American excess, en route to winning $5,000. They seem like average people, plucked from the streets. Not once do you imagine that one of them is attempting to use this experience to pad their resume or build their follower count.
Fast-forward to 2021, and the contestants begin sadly reflecting who we have become as an Always Online society: Loud, belligerent, greedy and relentlessly attention seeking. These are the children of the YouTube influencer and Twitch streamer eras, raised on a diet of catchphrases, impatient editing and that most integral of presentation styles: CONSTANT YELLING. Almost every person on this show seems to be using it like a demo reel for their own PewDiePie-style lifestyle network, mugging to the camera at every opportunity to the point that a staple of every episode is host Leslie Jones reminding contestants to shut up when the camera isn’t on them. That’s an actual thing that happens in every episode of Supermarket Sweep before the trivia questions begin.
By way of illustration, here’s how contestants of each era might be expected to react to winning an additional 10 seconds for their sweep time.
1990s contestant: *Nervous titter*, sideways glance. Pause. Awkwardly high-fives partner.
2020 contestant: “Aw yeeeeh, it’s ya boys TEAM APPLE DUMPLINGS IN THE HOUSE!” *Chest bumps, then barks like a dog seven times*.
I trust the difference in both presentation and annoyance factor here is fairly clear. It’s like watching the people you might see on an episode of Netflix’s Floor Is Lava be tasked with ransacking a supermarket.
It’s not just the contestants, though. They can be deeply irritating on their own, but the structure of the show itself has also been reborn as a playground for our disaffected, attention-starved generation, with the producers apparently coming to the conclusion that modernizing Supermarket Sweep meant that everything needed to be infinitely bigger, louder, more chaotic and unhinged. The “big sweep” that is central to any given episode becomes like a battlefield for the contestants’ attention spans, filled with constant distractions, flashing lights, screaming people, and far too many bonuses and side quests to pursue within the course of three minutes. A contestant is trying to fill their cart with diapers when hey, there’s a guy giving away golden bathroom keys in aisle 3 for the next 45 seconds! Guess I’ve got to get down there, but on the way I noticed that hey, there’s these giant stuffed bears the size of a human being that you need to drag back to the checkout area in the next 30 seconds. And so on, and so forth. The whole thing is a total sensory barrage.
Turning these sorts of contestants loose into that quagmire? Well, it’s no wonder the result is utter chaos. In all the episodes of the 1990s series I binged last summer, I can’t once recall an instance of two contestants so much as bumping each other’s carts, or inconveniencing each other in any serious way. This version of the show? I can only assume they’re signing some kind of injury waivers in advance, because they’re out there with people knocking over entire displays, slamming into competitors, flying around corners and sending 100-pound carts loaded with drums of mayonnaise hurtling into their own partners. It’s the careless clumsiness of a society where the average person can be expected to simply not give a shit about how any of their actions affect anyone or anything else. The people on this Supermarket Sweep operate with the boundless, reckless confidence of folks raised with such a level of unearned self-esteem that the concept of shame no longer exists for them. They’re all like Melissa McCarthy in SNL’s spot-on Supermarket Sweep parody from a few years back.
Are there aspects of this reboot that are charming for the sheer WTF factor? Certainly. I especially appreciate the inexplicable decision to expand the Supermarket Kayfabe by adding several recurring characters—a milquetoast security guard named Neil, and a sexy silver fox cashier man named DC—both of whom typically appear on screen to deliver a single sentence in each and every episode. What value could these characters possibly serve? Your guess is as good as mine, but if they take me away from the contestants screaming something along the lines of “GUNNA GET MAH MUNNAY!” for a few seconds, that’s fine by me. Anything that gets us away from a nurse from Florida, furiously flossing behind her podium as a celebration for correctly guessing “Sierra Mist” is a godsend at this point.
The only thing more horrifying is trying to imagine what the contestants of Supermarket Sweep 2050 are going to look like. As I tune in from my retirement community on Mars, I can only hope that the piquant tang of Soylent Green will be able to soothe my jangled nerves.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.
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