My friends and I embrace game nights: snacks, beverages, stuffed mascots, inspirational posters. Some people don’t, probably because not everyone can handle it when (not if) their true colors emerge in the throes of battle. Similarly, television series use games as plot devices to place characters in opposition to each other, draw out the best (and worst) in their personalities, and reinforce the show’s central themes. Here are some clear winners.
Seinfeld: “The Label Maker”
Quirky Kramer and slimy Newman play Risk, a slow-paced game of global conquest. After six hours, they need a break. Kramer will not trust Newman alone with the board and stashes it at Jerry’s, calling his apartment neutral territory, “like Switzerland.” Kramer stakes out Jerry’s apartment and catches Newman sneaking in to tamper with the board. Later, Kramer is closing in on the win. Bickering on the subway with the game board on their laps, Kramer and Newman catch the attention of a fellow traveler offended by their trivialization of Eastern Europe’s political affairs. The game ends violently. Somehow Newman manages to consider this draw equivalent to a win.
Cheers: “The Art of the Steal”
When simpleminded bartender Woody has trouble understanding economics, Norm assures him, “Nothing will explain the process quicker than a simple game of Monopoly.” The two sit down with Frasier and Cliff over Norm’s well-worn copy, which is a hodgepodge of pieces from other games, much like the odd mix of patrons who converge on the bar. Snooty Frasier accuses the others of being childish for squabbling over who will serve as banker—until Frasier himself loses his temper when they won’t let him have his favorite token, the race car. Frasier throws another fit when he loses despite playing by the rules while everyone else cheated. However, he quickly realizes his loss is the perfect way to teach Woody that economics do not operate on a principle of fairness.
Orange Is the New Black: “Hugs Can Be Deceiving”
In OITNB, prisoners who are fortunate to have money in their accounts purchase sundries at the commissary. Other offenders must improvise. Previously, we’ve seen resourceful inmates spar over a handmade cardboard Scrabble game. In this episode, Taystee and her crew play Celebrities, a team-based guessing game, with scraps of paper and a bucket. This activity is more than a pastime. It represents the segregation that permeates Litchfield Correctional Facility. The rift is visible both at the macro level—here, across racial lines, as the African-American women socialize almost exclusively with one another—and at the micro level, as Taystee’s friends exclude Suzanne from the game. Suzanne, an African-American woman with a mental illness, grew up in an adoptive white family and was painfully aware of her differences. Now, facing rejection by women who seem to be her peers diminishes her self-worth even further. Vee changes the group’s dynamics and empowers Suzanne—never mind the fact that she has ulterior motives.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “Intermission”
This episode of the absurdist British comedy show features a sketch called “Probe-Around on Crime” about supernatural approaches to police work. Officers patrol the streets on broomsticks. They use magic wands to make illegally parked cars disappear and help elderly women cross the road. “Yes, we in Special Crime Squad have been using wands for almost a year now,” one cop confirms. “You can defy time and space, and you can turn violent criminals into frogs. Something which you could never do with the old truncheons.” Perhaps most counterintuitively, detectives huddle over a Ouija Board that’s withholding information on a crime. Knowing, as most do, that the people operating the planchette control its movements, then someone within the force is obstructing justice! Also, they’re all ninnies.
Sesame Street: Episode 0677
Hype builds for "The Big Ping Pong Game." The crowd roars. Maria wields her paddle in a defensive position. David is empty handed, however, and grinning obliviously. Maria’s irritated. David finally finds a paddle, and… no ball… too many balls… Ping pong pandemonium. (Look for the next piece in my Screen-Play series on The Strong's Play Stuff blog to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Sesame Street’s premiere.)
To be fair, my games aren’t always peaceful, either. One night, a friend will accuse another (falsely) of hiding a resource card under the table. Another night, someone (ahem, maybe me) will charge someone else (um, maybe my husband) with manipulating me (I mean, someone) into trading him (or, someone) a resource he needed to win the game. But like good episodic television, my friends and I are mature enough to move on after 30 or 60 minutes, forget what happened in the past, and play again.
This post is Part Six in Lauren Sodano’s Screen-Play series. For more on toys, games, and all sorts of other stuff for play—past and present—from Lauren and her museum colleagues, visit The Strong's Play Stuff blog.