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Wheel of Fortune Kills Free Spin. Is Nothing Sacred?

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Last week, Robo-James’ time machine looked at the evolution over the decades of Wheel of Fortune. That eternal process continues; the game show starts a new season Monday, with a new twist that—like many in the past—sounds like a needless complication of something that already worked. The “Free Spin” wedge will be replaced by “Free Play.” What is that, you ask?

Well, here’s the description the show’s press-meisters sent:

“Free Play” will be on the wheel during the first three rounds of play and can be landed on repeatedly, and by all 3 contestants, without losing its value. The wedge gives the contestant immunity on his or her first action. If he or she calls a letter that is not in the puzzle, calls a letter that has already been called or incorrectly tries to solve the puzzle, he or she will not lose a turn. It also allows contestants to call a vowel for free whether or not they have the $250 necessary. Unlike “Free Spin”, which had no value when landed on, each correct consonant called during a “Free Play” is worth $500.

Got it? Good. Explain it to me, then.

I’m not automatically opposed to any change on Wheel. Last year’s introduction of the million-dollar-wedge, for instance, raised the stakes without doing anything to monkey with the basic game play. But WoF, I think, is falling into a trap of successful game shows, and really successful TV shows in general, and really people or things that have been successful at anything too long in general: it can’t leave well enough alone.

I get it. The natural inclination is toward progress. It’s irresistible. And it’s hard to accept that you are simply at your optimal state of achievement and cannot advance further. If you are a brilliant host of a 12:35 a.m. late-night show, for instance, you still take The Tonight Show if offered, even if you were less constrained at 12:35 a.m. And if you are one of the most-popular game shows of all time, you still tweak your format. Because it gets boring doing the same thing year in and year out, and therefore, you assume, the audience must be bored too.

Still, like the elaborate puzzle categories WoF has tried over the years, Free Play just seems to mess with something that’s not broken. (Take the recently introduced “Prize Puzzles,” in which the prize is always a trip and thus the answer always a predictable variation on “Drinking a Margarita on the Beach,” “Relaxing Underneath a Palm Tree,” etc.)

“Free Spin” made sense. It was a free spin. “Free Play”—well, I’ll see how it work in practice, but it seems like some weird hybrid of a super-free-spin, plus a free vowel, plus an incongruous “immunity” element that makes it seem like WoF’s producers are worried about seeming outdated in the reality-show era.

Enough, I say! Free the Free Spin! Who’s with me?