Going Wild in the Aisles
On the 2020 reboot of Supermarket Sweep and a year of pandemic grocery shopping
It finally happened: I ran out of television.
I tried to watch The Sopranos and failed. I tried to re-watch Gilmore Girls and couldn’t stand Rory or Dean, let alone make it up to Logan’s seasons. I started watching Search Party and had to stop after it gave me awful nightmares.
In these trying times, pretty much all I can consume are reality TV competition shows, the perfect “unscripted” fodder to soothe and comfort. I have seen all the best seasons of Survivor (1,7, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 27, 33, 37 and 40), and strictly out of boredom, all of the mediocre ones too (like, I watched Phillipines). I have seen every Drag Race regular series and spin-off more times than a person should ever be legally allowed to. I’ve watched more than a few episodes of the who-iest things from the very bottom of Netflix’s barrel: Blown Away, Skin Wars, and something called Best Leftovers Ever!. I’ve even started watching half-hour-long YouTube videos from mommy bloggers showing off their “INSANE Costco hauls!!!” vicariously pretending that I, too, am a conservative mother of six and homemaker living in Idaho.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to watch the 2020 reboot of Supermarket Sweep. It was a cold, Sunday afternoon. I’d done groceries that morning with my boyfriend, just like we’ve done once a week every Sunday morning since moving in together in the summer. He was watching a movie on the TV in our living room, some arty Criterion film that my brain has literally no space to process right now. I took my laptop to our bed and opened Crave. What Drag Race season to re-watch now? 6? All-Stars 3? And then I saw it, a picture of Leslie Jones in a shopping cart, arms wide, boxes of cereal flying behind her. “Fuck it,” I thought and clicked on the giant grin on her face.
Despite being something of TV game show connoisseur, I’d never heard of or watched Supermarket Sweep before, a surprising fact considering that its first iteration aired on ABC in 1965, during the same era as popular and enduring shows like Jeopardy! and The Price is Right. While I haven’t watched the ‘60s or ‘90s versions (yet…), the 2020 reboot of Supermarket Sweep instantly grabbed me.
The show is hosted by comedian and actor Leslie Jones, who is also an executive producer for the reboot and responsible for getting it back on the air. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Jones described herself as a “game show head,” stating that watching Supermarket Sweep in the ‘90s struck her in particular, since it was a show for “regular people.” “[It’s not like] Jeopardy!,” Jones said. “You don’t have to know 17 states and shit; you just have to know where the steaks are.” Jones’ enthusiasm for the show is palpable and a big reason why the show is so fun to watch. Every time she screams “It’s time to play SUPERMARKET SWEEEEEEEEEEEEP!!!” you can’t help but laugh.
While the rules have changed somewhat through its various incarnations in the ‘60s, ‘90s and ‘00s, Supermarket Sweep generally follows a similar format and is always set in a grocery store. In the first round, three pairs of contestants have to answer a variety of food product questions and puzzles and are rewarded for being the first team to answer correctly. In the second round, called “the Big Sweep,” the teams each have one contestant run through the grocery store in a specific period of time. The team who gets the highest value of items in their cart in the time limit gets to move on to the next round.
In the final round, called the “Bonus Sweep” in the ‘90s version and the “Super Sweep” in the 2020 reboot, one team gets the chance to win a higher cash price by solving a progression of riddles that lead them to various products in the store. If they can find all the products in under a minute, they win the grand prize: $5000 in the ‘90s version, and up to $100,000 in the 2020 reboot. Not bad for a one-off episode of a game show, considering that’s the grand prize for most series-long competition game shows which require infinitely more work than being able to figure out that Fresca is “a citrus soft drink that’s totally fresh in Spain” and then run to the soda aisle as fast as you humanly can.
The real charm of the show is watching the contestants play the various rounds, in all of their ups and downs. Sometimes, the teams will crush it in the trivia round, and then absolutely flop in the Big Sweep, running through the aisles with a clueless, overwhelmed look in their eyes while Jones screams “NOOOO!!!” at them over the loudspeaker. Sometimes, teams will perform badly in the trivia round, but make it up later in the Big Sweep, expertly stacking their cart with a $300 Yeti cooler, a $250 cheese wheel, and a $300 roast of wagyu beef. The true fun, however, always lies in watching the team that makes it to Super Sweep, when all of the lights in the store turn red and Jones tells the contestants that things just got way more intense.
Some teams that performed well during the Big Sweep flop during the Super Sweep, choking on the riddles and earning none of the larger cash prizes. Some teams, however, that you don’t think will make it somehow do, occasionally even right down to the buzzer: these moments are the most victorious and what makes watching the show the most surprising. Not to give too many spoilers away, but there is one team that wins that provides one of the single funniest moments of television I’ve watched in a long time, and felt like watching a meme organically. Just when you think they won’t find the final item (the clue: “It would be ironic if they served this type of lettuce on the Titanic), one of the members of Team Cold Coffee grabs the iceberg lettuce right at the buzzer, stares directly at the camera in a moment of complete overwhelm, and then shreds the entire head of lettuce with her bare hands out of excitement, while Leslie Jones looks at her in total fear.
Although I’ve been known to occasionally crush it while watching Jeopardy! and absolutely destroy it while watching Beat Shazam, there is a lower barrier to entry to enjoy and feel like you, too, could kill it on Supermarket Sweep. While watching the show, my boyfriend and I not only tried to constantly one-up each other to see who could identify the Pillsbury Dough Boy first (official name: Poppin’ Fresh) during the trivia round but endlessly strategized about how we would go about the Big Sweep. His strategy: go for the meat, beauty products, and big-ticket items (“You also need to cycle your cart every 40 seconds or else it will get too heavy,” he added). My strategy: get the “shopping list” first, then do the appliances and try to pick up the coffee cup and golden can bonuses, as well as the inflatables, along the way. And don’t forget the saffron!
Still, it’s bizarre to think about a game show that takes place in a grocery store, especially during COVID. When the pandemic started, I was living with my mom. When she suddenly developed a cough after the city went into lockdown, we both went to get tested, staying quarantined in our house until we got the results back. Once they were negative, we ventured to the grocery store for the first time in a week, a very brief span of time in which, suddenly, things were noticeably different. Seemingly overnight, there were plastic barriers in front of the cash registers and strict direction arrows on the floor. Whereas I once enjoyed lingering in the aisles, contemplating what would be the very best and most cost-efficient can of tomato paste to buy, grocery shopping now felt like a mission, one where I had to go in and out as fast as possible without dying, or causing others to die.
As much as I don’t mind doing it, grocery shopping in my adult years has always been at least somewhat stressful. I don’t have a car, I don’t make that much money, and I live in a province where it’s winter for 6 months of the year. Hauling a grocery cart filled with canned beans for twenty minutes home when the sidewalks haven’t been plowed yet sucks. And venturing out to the store in the middle of a global pandemic sucks even more, especially when it’s the only public indoor place you’re “allowed” to go to.
Nevertheless, the pandemic has forced me to become a true power shopper. I always made a list before going to the store, divided by section, but now I divide it even further, going in order of the aisles so that I can avoid going back through the store as much as possible (TFW you get to the freezer section and you forgot to get onions… RIP). My boyfriend and I split up too, tackling different sections and then meeting up, further reducing our time in the store. Shopping in a pandemic has also made me hyper-aware of where certain products are. For instance, the Earth’s Own Vanilla Oat Milk large containers are in the refrigerated row of the “natural products” section at my local store, while the smaller containers of the same product are in the unrefrigerated section an aisle over (WHY?!).
Even though going to the grocery store is horrible right now, I’ve really impressed myself with how fast I can get in, grab my shit, and go, inadvertent training to crush it on an episode of Supermarket Sweep. Maybe grocery shopping will be better now that I’ve watched the show, another distance at which I can put myself in between the crushing reality of being a year into a global traumatic event. I can pretend that I’m not buying another block of tofu in COVID times. Instead, I’m on a game show, in the final round, about to win the grand prize. And when I hear that beep, I definitely think of all the fun I could be having on Supermarket Sweep.
What Else I’m Watching: I rewatched Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion for the first time in years after reading this essay from writer Sam Cohen. It is objectively a three-and-a-half-star movie, but personally a five-star film to me. Mira Sorvino was dating Quentin Tarantino at the time of filming, so there are references to Big Kahuna Burger and Red Apple Cigarettes, thus technically making Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion part of the Tarantino-verse (the movie is also potentially connected to Mullholland Drive???).
What I’m Reading: Lots of great articles to dig into, including Brandon Taylor on missing the movie theatre, Foster Kamer on Y2K carpets, Mel Compo on never dressing normal again after COVID, and Raven Leilani on how playing Final Fantasy informed her novel writing.
What I’m Listening To: I’ve really been enjoying the podcast Spectacle: An Unscripted History of Reality TV hosted by TV writer and columnist Mariah Smith. It’s covered a few shows so far, including The Real World, Survivor, and Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and even as a reality TV superfan, I’ve been learning new things.
Mutual Aid Calls: Indigenous writer, poet, and artist Arielle Twist is currently crowd-funding for emergency dental surgery. There is also a fund for Montreal mainstay Elle Barbara, who is currently facing a legal battle due to renovictions. Donate if you can!
Thanks for reading. If you liked this newsletter, please subscribe, like, comment and share. The next issue will be out around March 31. You can find me on Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, and Letterboxd. Take care of yourself, and each other.