Assessing Bob Barker.

What you're watching.
Nov. 3 2006 6:30 PM

Bob Barker

Daytime TV's last old-school gentleman.

Bob Barker. Click image to expand.
Bob Barker

The first title card, framed within a blinking gold border, promises "EXCITING GAMES!" The second foretells "FANTASTIC PRIZES!" The third cites all-seeing TV Guide: "THE BEST GAME SHOW OF ALL TIME!"The Price Is Right (CBS, weekdays at 11 a.m. ET) hops out of the TV set to scramble all over you like a litter of puppies wearing tambourines for collars. Edd Kalehoff's indelible theme—the sound of cheer coming down the track—rouses you from your sick-day stupor or your Guiding Light daze, as the people in the studio audience raise a gentle frenzy.

Bob Barker, a host who projects cool control and avuncular warmth at once, is now in his 83rd year on Earth, and his 35th presiding over this twinkling heaven. An unfailingly graceful screen presence, Barker announced this week that he would hang up his microphone—a natty corded model with a distinctively slender, and mildly kinky, silhouette—next June. A notable chunk of his core audience has retirement on the mind, too, if the commercials are any guide: "Life begins at 65…" "Free mobility consultation…" "What's the Beano doing out?" But the show, now as ever, is fun for all ages—snowbound tweens, stoned collegians, hausfraus in want of tender stimulation.

Yesterday, in a gray one-button suit and a royal-blue French-cuffed shirt, Barker looked like James A. Baker III at an Ocean's Eleven tryout. Barker's Beauties were dreamy in knee-length button-front dresses of a red somewhere between cardinal and Chianti; a video artist could do worse than to create a loop endlessly extending the moment in which two of them, coiffed like Douglas Sirk heroines, demo'd a pingpong table (actual retail price: $578). The contestants, clad in bold shirts bearing messages to Bob and America, looked like crap of course. It would be mean-spirited to mock the aesthetic sense of the Price Is Right crowd—they're so friendly! So blessedly anti-camp and nonironic! So sensible about the value of frozen entrees!—but I will try. It was the least stylish collection of adult humans I've seen since my last trip to Boston. They dressed like 5-year-olds—actually in keeping with the sets and props, which, awesomely, suggest a kindergartener's idea of a casino.

A thirtysomething dude named Todd was the first to make it to the stage. The game was Master Key. The prizes were jewelry ("classic American coins" that had been "respectfully enhanced" into unspeakable bling), a dinette set that made the jewelry look as if it belonged in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a two-door Ford with a manual transmission and power windows. Todd won it all, and his victory dance elicited Barker's buoyant celebration: "You've won it! He's won everything! He's gone! He's leaping about the stage! He is off his gourd, temporarily! He's won everything in Master Key! He loves it! We all love it! Congratulations! More after this!" I love that "we all love it!": Barker invites every one of us into the magic circle.

Todd went on to the Showcase Showdown, where he competed against Jessica, a lanky young South Carolinian who desired, according to her T-shirt, some free stuff, having accrued much debt in pursuit of a "masters degree." (The poor dear couldn't even afford an apostrophe.) Jessica looked like a filly caught in a searchlight when asked to price a lounge chair and underestimated its value by 81 percent, but she eventually made it to the stage, where she flirted, hard. "So nice to meet youuuu," she honey-dripped—her eyeballs doing all kinds of things in Barker's direction—when she should have been sizing up a sofa with "a wonderfully scaled contemporary look." But the game was Flip Flop, which is half easy and half dumb luck, and she coasted ahead. There was an RV waiting for her at the end of the show, along with a 60-inch TV, an arcade bowling game, and, best, Barker's mellow expression of pride that she'd done very well. Of course Jessica has a crush on the man with the creaky knees and the sleek mic, the last of daytime's old-school gentlemen.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.