‘Supermarket Sweep’ went off air but never left our hearts

David_Ruprecht-sweater-001
Why does the appeal of a game show defined by hyper-consumerism endure today? It’s not just the sweaters. | Supermarket Sweep Fans/YouTube

“The next time you’re at a checkout counter and you hear that beep…”

Beep beep!

If you were a kid living in America during the ‘90s, it was almost impossible to avoid the above words, the iconic line that signaled closing time for each episode of Supermarket Sweep, the popular game show that premiered on Lifetime 29 years ago this Tuesday.

The show’s premise was simple: Every episode featured three pairs of shoppers (often couples, but sometimes siblings or friends) who answered questions about common grocery items to earn more time to compete in each episode’s “big sweep.” That sweep entailed their running through a mock grocery store to try and run up as high a grocery bill as possible for a chance to win a $5,000 cash prize in the final bonus game.

The straightforward concept was really brought to life with host David Ruprecht’s elaborate sweaters, the contestants’ matching sweep sweatshirts, narrator Johnny Gilbert’s old-timey phrasing and the general corniness of it all. It was a giant wholesome meme before wholesome memes were a thing, and perhaps that’s why it’s still relevant all these decades later.

While the ‘90s version of the show is its best-known and longest-running iteration, the original Sweep actually premiered on ABC in 1965, running for two seasons. The ‘90s edition of the show was so popular it sparked about a dozen international offshoots, including Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, which ran for seven seasons between 1993 and 2001 before being briefly rebooted in 2007. A Ukrainian version of the show called Шоу Шара appears to still be on the air today.

The show has seen a surge of interest in recent years. In 2015, Ruprecht was interviewed in a Great Big Story feature where he disclosed that “all the meat was fake and all the other food had gone bad.” The next year, Melissa McCarthy starred in a cut-for-time Saturday Night Live sketch that riffed on the show and drummed up over 5 million views on YouTube.

Next, a collection of episodes from the Christian channel Pax TV (now Ion TV) version of the show (which aired from 2000-2003) hit Amazon Prime Video. And, in 2017, news broke that the show is heading for yet another reboot, though no further information about a host or premiere date have followed since then.

In the meantime, the show has built a cult audience of thousands of fans of the show watching illegally-uploaded clips of full episodes on YouTube. One channel boasts over 8,000 subscribers and hundreds of episodes uploaded at a rate of about a dozen per month.  

I am one of those subscribers. At the end of a long day, I often find myself devouring one, two or three of the old clips at a time, entranced by the massive meats and the awkward introductions from contestants like or Bea and Stan, who adorably couldn’t locate Nair in the bonus game (“C’mon, Stan, where’s the Nair?”).

Watching the clips brings back vivid, happy memories from my childhood. From a very young age, I’d often accompany my dad on his trips to the grocery store. Sometimes, I’d help him locate and check off items from the regimented shopping list carefully organized by aisle.

Other times, to the dad’s horror, I’d wander off on my own, building “cabins” out of toilet paper rolls, climbing mountains made of soda packs. And almost every time, we’d “sample” bites of candy and nuts from the bulk section when we thought no one was looking. The grocery store felt like a playground to me, and it was one of my favorite places to spend time with my dad.

After watching the show for the first time as a kid, I was instantly hooked. I’d record episodes onto VHS tapes so I could re-watch them at my leisure. I’d even cut out pictures of grocery items from the Sunday circulars, placing them into a “store” of my own outlined with masking tape on carpet in the middle of the living room and forcing my parents to play my own version of the “sweep” with me.

At that time, grocery stores felt like playgrounds to me and grocery shopping was an activity of pleasure. Today, I’ve come to hate grocery shopping — though I love cooking.

As an adult, the grocery store has become a place of stress. As my cart fills up, my anxiety grows over how high the total will be. I begin to feel guilty that the produce I buy will spoil before I go to the effort of preparing it. I feel guilty for buying more convenient foods that are more expensive than the regular stuff. And as an overweight person, it’s hard to ignore the feelings of judgment from conveyor belt jurists over the nutrition level of the items you’re purchasing.

Bulk stores are even worse. Setting foot in a Costco makes me feel dizzy within minutes. Who can eat this much macaroni and cheese?!

I’m sure these feelings of anxiety and dread are even worse for the 40 million Americans who live in food-insecure households or are relying on SNAP benefits that the current administration is regularly threatening to curtail. I also recognize that my memories of grocery shopping as a child owe a lot to my privilege as an individual raised in a middle-class household in a quiet, boring small town in southeast Wisconsin.

I’d still venture a hypothesis that fond memories of Supermarket Sweep bely class. The idea of running through a grocery aisle and packing your cart with as much as you can fit in it is a pure fantasy. It flashes back to a simpler, joy-filled time when the hope of a $5,000 cash prize was still something worth jumping and screaming about, when today we’d already be mentally calculating how much of that is lost to taxes. A simpler time before you knew how to count calories or clip coupons.

Above all, Supermarket Sweep appeals to the part of ourselves that never really grows up — the part of our brain that never stops daydreaming of soda-can mountains and toilet-paper cabins.

It’s hard to say whether a reboot of the classic show will succeed. Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games, which has somehow been running for over five years now, comes close but doesn’t quite scratch the same itch.

There is also something to the rampant ‘90s-style hyper-consumerism of the Sweep that feels dated and even a little off-putting in today’s world of tidying up and “sparking joy.” It’s the same reason it’s almost impossible to imagine a reboot of the Sweep’s sister game show: Shop ’Til You Drop at a time when most shopping malls are shuttering or converting into gyms and apartment buildings at a record pace.

Still, even if a Sweep reboot fails or never materializes altogether, we’ll forever have the memories of those hideous sweaters and mega turkeys.

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