The game show revival of the last decade finally touched the classic Supermarket Sweep this fall. The show began, believe it or not, in the 1960s in New York, and has seen multiple revivals over the past five decades. The most contemporary version that most Americans remember aired in the late 1990s and early aughts. For the uninitiated, the premise is as follows: teams of contestants compete for a cash prize by showing off their spending skills in a staged supermarket. By playing clue games about popular household brands found in any superstore, competitors are given the opportunity to participate in the “Big Sweep” to either earn or gamble their winnings in a frenzied race across the store. I know, it is as unhinged as it sounds!
I was thrilled when I heard this show was coming back, and even more so upon learning comedian Leslie Jones would be hosting. In the first four episodes, the show’s exhilarating formula combined with Jones’ energetic presentation has not disappointed.
The most striking difference between the old version and the updated one is its inclusion of, well, everyone! I remember watching Sweep as a kid and noting how the show clearly centered white people. On par with most things at the start of the millennium, the show’s contestants were predominantly white, with a token few BIPOC occasionally featured. I don’t recall ever seeing queer or gender-variant folks competing in the ’90s iteration. But in the revival, the casting corrected the sins of the past. So far, in nearly every episode, white people are in the minority. We’ve seen teams of Black, Latinx, and Asian folks participate. LGBTQ folks are in on the fun as well, with gay couples, a trans person, and even two drag queens making appearances!
The inclusion of non-white, straight, and cis people is only helped by Jones’ over-the-top hosting. I was struck in the first episode by how Leslie unashamedly favored the team of Black women, calling themselves Team Collard Greens. What’s more, she actively clowned the team of white guys to hilarity. To me, this felt personal. As a child growing up loving and watching reality competition shows with my family, it was an unspoken rule that we all rooted for the Black team(s)/competitor(s) — there were usually only one or two to speak of. We felt a duty to cheer for them and call out racism often covertly leveled at them by their peers or the show’s production. You know it if you’re Black and a long time watcher of Survivor, The Amazing Race, and shows born of their ilk — the show will make the Black folks out to look angry and vicious while the white folks are valorized, and somehow the Black competitors will always be weeded out before the halfway point of the competition. Seeing Jones flip the script of who to cheer for felt affirming to me as a Black viewer.
But our boisterous host doesn’t just show love for the Black contestants. She also makes it a point to cheer on and have playful banter with queer and coupled competitors. She’s had great moments with the drag queens of Team Makeup, and the gay interracial soulmates of Team Thyme.
What I love most about this revived Sweep is that it features regular people. I know what you’re thinking: isn’t the point of reality television and game shows to feature everyday people? Yes, that isn’t untrue. However, the reality TV genre of competition shows has morphed into its own brand of celebrity over time. Beloved game shows ended to make way for the burgeoning genre of more intensive, weekslong reality TV/competition hybrids. Whereas we’d become used to seeing fresh faces with every season of Big Brother, Survivor, or The Challenge, at a certain point, networks figured out how to milk a handful of fan favorites or villains for ratings and in turn, money. They took a page out of the books of Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives franchises by essentially turning these once average people into career television personalities, inviting contestants back for “all-star” seasons repeatedly or simply letting some of them become cast regulars of these shows. These folks don’t feel any real stakes in winning or losing, because if they make a big enough impression, chances are they’ll be making money for years to come.
With Sweep, we return to the everyday-ness and mundanity of lives that most of us lead. We can comfortably watch these regular people race carts around a grocery store and think “Yes, I could do that!” To really drive (er, cart) home the average feel of the people, Sweep features a brief shoutout to an essential grocery store worker serving citizens in their cities during the pandemic every episode. They give them a sweet cash prize and a thank you before continuing with the action. The self-awareness of Sweep in that regard is yet another wholesome aspect of the renewed version.
In a jaded reality television landscape and a country in pandemic turmoil, Supermarket Sweep is a welcome escape into a reality where everyone can win. Not all revivals are necessary, or even work for that matter; they’re very hard to nail. You have to capture the essence of what made the original great, while revitalizing the dated aspects for modern sensibilities. This quirky hourlong game show does just that, and I for one am thankful that we were given this lighthearted show in such dark times.