Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Wonder of French game shows

Over here I don't watch them much anymore, but during my stay last May in Arles I found myself gravitating to French game shows. It was something to do during my lunch and dinner breaks from writing. Not only were they fun but they proved an easy way to keep up on my French and gain a little "cultural insight" into contemporary France. My favorite show was a French version of Family Feud (Une famille en or)--I am being completely serious here--which featured a host way cooler than Richard Dawson and also some notable twists. For instance, instead of one member of the pair being led off stage during the big money round (if you've ever seen F.F. you probably remember this), that person would be kept on stage but given dark glasses and headphones through which loud dance music was piped. Then, while their partner answered questions, the person was required to dance for the camera. As you can imagine, some of these people were just not funky enough to carry it off. (But that was kind of the point.) A surprising number carried it off perfectly well. My favorite question asked on the show was "What is the most annoying thing about Celine Deon?" A few of the survey responses, i.e. the ones I can remember: her nose, her family, her accent (something about being from Quebec, I guess), and her voice.

While French Family Feud was a lunchtime routine, I often scheduled my dinners around French Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (Qui Veut Gagner des Millions?) Mainly because I was able to follow it better than anything else that was on. The format was more or less identical to the American version. I have to say, however, that I'd always feel a lot better about our oft maligned system of education when I watched the French version. Maybe it had something to do with the segment of the French population that aspires to appear on game shows, but so many times the contestants seemed to miss atrociously easy questions. And when the contestant had to "phone a friend," the friend--supposedly selected for his or her knowledge--proved useless about 90% of the time. This amazed me more than anything. Who were these "friends"? (Before I get too haughty maybe I should remember my own experience decades ago of appearing on a quiz show for high school students in Washington, DC and realize that you can never underestimate the power of brain freeze in front of a rolling camera.) Btw, in case you're wondering: No, my French isn't that great. But with the questions being posted on screen--reading a foreign language is so much easier than listening to it--and with a French-English dictionary beside me, I usually caught the gist of what was going on.

Another game show I looked at from time to time was not an American import but a homegrown product. The name of it, I hate to say, escapes me. But I remember its raucous studio audience and how they frequently broke out into dancing. The host, a very lively, Hollywoodish guy, despite some weird birth or burn mark on the side of his nose, liked to run into the crowd and engage in ad hoc, tongue-in-cheek interviewing. The format for the questions varied from round to round but in the middle of the show, the competition paused to allow for what, in a loose translation (I couldn't find the actual word in my dictionary), was a "naughty" question. Loud red hearts would flare on the screen and the audience would "woo woo" while the contestant let himself or herself be interrogated about some apparently personal matter. All in good fun, of course. It was about this time, however, I would ask myself why in the world I was still watching. I'd click off the tube and head up the stairs to my bedroom to work.

I felt rather embarrassed to admit this game show "habit" in my daily emails home; at least until, while on a train to Marseilles, I read an article in The Times of London in which the writer, an Englishwoman who teaches French, recommended game shows as an especially useful way to learn the language. Because one hears and sees the words simultaneously. She herself once appeared on a French game show and won big. I clucked to myself, enjoying this eminent justification. "So," I said, "I guess I need to do more Family Feud when I get back to Arles."


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