A snappy documentary that charts a crafty little con job, Game Show Network’s “Big Bucks” spotlights a creep named Michael Larson and how he stuck it to CBS in 1984 on the popular “Press Your Luck.” Comprehensive and clever, the upstart cabler’s first original longform program underscores the impact that the cash-stash genre had on America’s TV culture long before “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” and “Survivor” and is just the sort of thing to put a young company on the map. Jackpot.
Neither the scandal nor Larson ever hit critical mass a la “21” and Charles Van Doren, but the events that led up to Larson’s record two-day haul are equally fascinating. A self-described unemployed ice cream truck driver from Ohio, Larson, who died of cancer in 1999, had become infatuated with get-rich-quick schemes. He “settled” on the Peter Tomarken-hosted skein after obsessing over what everybody called the set’s “Big Board,” a rapidly changing sequence of lights that rested on gifts, money and little devil-like creatures called Whammies that would wipe out a player’s fortune.
After watching taped episodes over and over again, Larson discovered that there were only a few patterns used, and, more importantly, that the same squares would brighten every four or five seconds. The trick, besides actually getting on and answering trivia correctly, was to accumulate opportunities and then focus.
Focus he did, and Larson, after hitting a Whammy on his first attempt, gained control of the giant slab again and never lost; he always landed on a prize. But there was nothing Tomarken nor the production crew could do; the movement was generated by a computer, and, as they even determined later after researching the contract and the videotape, he really wasn’t breaking any rules. (It was discovered later that for an extra $600, the machine’s designers could have made the configuration random). Larson eventually racked up $110,000, and his two competitors, Janie Litras and Ed Long, who are both interviewed at length, didn’t know how to respond; they were flummoxed, but the energy was electric.
Almost too manufactured, Larson’s story is as much a tale of coincidences as it is concentration. Appearing on a gameshow in today’s environment is next to impossible; millions apply via online applications and multiple phone calls — and only a handful make it. So leaping past the idea that Larson came to L.A. with nothing and grabbed a seat on the hottest one around is the hardest thing to navigate in “Big Bucks.” Exec producer Bill Carruthers (who recently died) and coordinator Bobby Edwards even disagreed over his appearance because his history sounded a little fishy.
Aside from that, the tale is captivating. Along with a frame-by-frame timecode dissection to uncover how close his turns came to missing their marks, “Big Bucks” replays the actual installments in which Larson made his fortune. Show ran out of time and had to cut off the first 30-minute broadcast at the 15th consecutive spin. Second half-hour reps the first time a continuation ever took place on “Press Your Luck.”
Larson returned to Ohio as reclusive as ever. G.f. Teresa McGlynn left him after he had become almost hermit-like — and made her count dollar bill serial numbers for another chance to win another contest. His brother, James, and mother were routinely asked about his whereabouts by federal investigators on different charges, including securities fraud.
Director James Taylor keeps things bubbly, and to see Tomarken 20 years later — he hosts “Big Bucks” — brings back memories of bad-hair television. Long and Litras try their hand at the board once more, and several Eye execs gather for a memorial “luncheon.” It’s all a blast, and if GSN continues to peddle projects like this, then it’s certain to shed its rep as a smalltime operation.
The new version of “Press Your Luck” airs daily on GSN.