P:O.V. No.3

On causality in The Price is Right

Richard Raskin

The core of any story which is satisfying to its public, is a chain of cause-and-effect relationships. In Aristotle's words, "whenever such-and-such a personage says or does such-and-such a thing, it shall be the probable or necessary outcome of his character, and whenever this incident follows on that, it shall be either the necessary or the probable consequence of it."[1] This principle has remained a cornerstone of narrative theory and of works on the crafting of fiction, which define a story as a sequence of causally related events.[2]

The Price is Right is, like any other successful story, constructed as a causal chain, though to a greater degree than is usually the case, the causality in play is left implicit rather than spelled out by having both cause and effect shown on screen.

For example, when Zev's buzzer stops working in the midst of his winning streak on the quiz program (Scene 12), we are left to work out for ourselves that some producer in a control room has apparently instructed that the buzzer be disconnected in order to make the contest less lopsided and more interesting for the viewers. Another filmmaker might have chosen to include a shot of the producer giving the order; Daphna Levin, the writer/director of The Price is Right, admirably left it up to us to work out the cause of the buzzer failure-in much the same way that the punch line of a good joke requires that the listener figure out the logical connections involved.

Generally in The Price is Right, those connections are easy enough to work out and all the funnier for their remaining implicit. Perhaps the best example of this is in the final moments of the film, when Zarchit in her wedding gown, runs her hands down the front of Zev's tuxedoed body, kneeling lower and lower before him until she is out of frame, and Zev turns to us (to the camera) with a startled look on his face. No adult viewer would be at a loss to figure out what Zarchit is doing out of frame.

That particular ending is all the more remarkable if we consider the changes that must have occurred in Zarchit since the beginning of the film. When we first saw her in the supermarket (Scene 2), she was utterly incapable of functioning in the physical world. First she crashed into Zev, then managed to bang their heads together, and finally walked into a product display, falling flat on her face on top of the packages of food she had knocked down.

In the scenes which take place just outside the supermarket (Scenes 3 and 8), she either forgets her bicycle or heads off with it in the wrong direction. And even more important is the paralyzing shyness she exhibits in these scenes, as well as the lack of self-confidence, which prevent her from carrying on a coherent conversation and from responding to Zev's proposal that they go out and celebrate if he wins on the TV show. In replying "you'll probably have someone to go out with," she shows that she doesn't consider herself to be "someone," which in turn tells us about the level of her self-esteem. Her posture in these scenes (with head hanging down) and the awkwardness of her gestures, are equally telling.

Considering the road she has traveled from those early scenes until the final moment of the film when she naughtily slips out of frame, we may wonder what catalyzed the changes that must have taken place in her.

This is the one case in the story where an implicit causality is not relatively obvious. In this case, we have to work our way through a more complex network of causal links than was necessary to understand the more limited events in the story, and the film may well provide more than one way to understand the basis for Zarchit's transformation.

One way to connect story elements is to suggest that Zarchit overcomes her shyness as a result of having for the first time the upper hand in her relationship with Zev. Until then, he was-despite his own shy and retiring nature-always the infallible one, the expert, and she was generally at a loss. Now, he has suffered public defeat, and for once she can be supportive and generous toward him.

This can be seen most clearly in Scene 14, when she holds up the "Welcome Champ!" sign, to which Zev dejectedly replies, "But I lost." The second sign she then holds up, upside down at first (as a reminder of the awkwardness she is in the process of shedding), says: "You'll always be a champ to me"! Never before had she been in a position to lift him up.

We are of course well aware that Zev's defeat was not the result of any failure on his part, but rather of a deliberate choice of the wrong price sign out of loyalty to Zarchit, to whom he had promised: "No one will ever know," when she punched in the wrong price for a toilet bowl brush and he tried to cover for her. Yet Zev acts as though he had failed on the show, and for that matter, so does Zarchit.

This was, I believe, a plot necessity, designed to give Zarchit the upper hand at the end, and in that respect, this too involves a form of causality.[3] There is no mention in Scene 14, as there had been in Scene 8, that Zev was covering for Zarchit, because that would have made her indebted to him and what the plot called for at the end was for her to be in a giving position-which in turn helps explain her new found self-confidence and boldness.

We can also make connections between story elements by taking another and very different pathway as well. The fact that Zev sacrificed an otherwise certain victory on television in order to keep his promise to Zarchit, could be seen as giving her a new sense of her importance to him, which in itself could be a factor in overcoming her shyness.

In any event, her transformation is given visual form through the attractive hairdo, make-up, earrings and evening dress in Scene 14, and then is taken a step further by the wedding gown and crown-shaped headdress she wears in the final scene. An additional visual factor, better enabling us to accept her almost total transformation, is the set used in the final scene-the same one that had earlier been used in Zev's dream in Scene 9, in which Zarchit appears as a woman who is perfectly at ease with her sexuality.

Zev's dream in Scene 9. The final scene.

The sunset in both of these scenes was deliberately made to look fake, like a cardboard backdrop of the type photographers might use when posing their customers in a romantic setting. Perhaps this is Daphna Levin's way of winking at us at the end, reminding us that this too-like the TV quiz she parodied earlier in the film-is all 'show biz' and not to be taken too seriously.

1 On the Art of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990; trans. Ingram Bywater), Section 15, pp. 56-57.

2 See for example Gerald Prince, The Grammar of Stories (The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1973), pp. 26, 28; and John Gardner, The Art of Fiction. Notes on Craft for Young Writers (New York: Vintage Books, 1991; orig. pub. 1984), pp. 53-56.

3 In Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London & New York: Routledge, 1993; orig. pub. 1983), Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan distinguishes between two forms of causality, explaining a fictional event a) "according to the logic of verisimilitude" [by which she means: in terms of character motivation]; or b) "according to the structural needs of the plot" (pp. 17-18). She rightly points out that it is important to distinguish between these two forms of causality. I would only add that the second one-such as the screenwriter's need to get rid of a given character so that the plot can advance in a desired direction-is far too rarely invoked with respect to understanding cinematic fiction.