The most compelling show now on television premiered last night, and all it took was a few minutes to hook me in. Luckily, I happened to catch the final few minutes, but that's when the drama really got good. I'm talking about Take It All, Howie Mandel's ingenious new game show, which is getting a trial run this week on NBC.
Mandel calls the show a mix of Jerry Springer and Deal or No Deal, but he undersells it. It's actually the televised incarnation of one of the most wrenching and well-considered problems in ethics: the Prisoner's Dilemma. There are many variants, but the essence is this: Imagine two accomplices, arrested and charged with a crime. The district attorney separates the two mopes and gives each the same spiel: If they confess and the other prisoner doesn't, they'll go free and the other guy will do hard time. If they both confess, they'll both do time, but it'll be in a minimum security prison somewhere with decent food, and they'll be out before they know. If neither confesses, the prosecutor will pursue the maximum penalty against both of the men.
Neither men can know what the other will do. The ethical paradox follows from the rational choice of both men to confess: It is clearly in their self-interest to do so, but when they conceive of themselves as a unit, it is in their collective self-interest to stay silent. What would you do? As you might imagine, it is easy to extrapolate this game to the logic of, say, nuclear war, which is the domain that brought it to the attention of modern ethicists and philosophers.
Take It All puts two contestants against each other and gives them an escalating series of choices; do they keep what they've earned separately … or do they "take it all," grabbing their opponent's kitty away from them, assuming their opponent decided to keep what she earned. What's interesting about this spandrel of a game show is that the "prisoners" get to talk to each other. They know something, but not much, about the background of the other contestant. They know, to a certain point, how much they'd get if they "take it all." And the show provides them with contextual clues to heighten the choice. In the final moments of Take It All on Monday, the two finalists were teachers, one man and one woman. Each has won a bunch of great prizes that they can keep if they both choose to keep what they've earned. But then they choose one of a dozen sealed containers — this is the Deal or No Deal part — that contain anywhere from about $50,000 to $250,000.
They don't know what is in their containers, although Mandel made sure to mention, after a quick glance, that one of them would stand to win a lot more than the other. So — prisoner's dilemma time. The goal of the game show is not to be nice. It is to win money. Looking greedy on national television is in vogue, thanks to shows like Big Brother, which have elevated conniving to an art form. The social restraint that some of us might show, the compassion that we might want to convey, is not incentivized by game show television. So the punishment for one of the players — even a teacher! — screwing over another, is only really whatever degree of shame he or she will face from her community of origin. Or so ONE of the contestants last night assumed. The female teacher played naïve, appealing to the common dignity of both contestants, and their shared backgrounds, as a plea of sorts for cooperation. She indicated that she couldn't really trust the male teacher based on his play in earlier rounds.
Then Mandel stepped back in, and asked the two contestants to lock in their decisions, which they each made separately, without the other knowing. With a minute to go before the Michael Buble special started on NBC, the two teachers' choices were dramatically revealed: The woman chose to TAKE IT ALL, and the man chose to keep what he had earned, assuming that the woman's personal plea to him was sincere. It wasn't. She screwed him over, going home with more than $400,000. He went home with nothing.
Mandel says the program is simply a steroidal version of what happens during the holiday season, when everyone wonders about the value and meaning of gifts they get and receive, and a game-show version of a gift exchange. But the drama is deeply rooted in one of ethics' most compelling questions.