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Nostalgia on aisle 6: Why 'Supermarket Sweep' reruns hit the spot

Classic episodes of the '90s game show, now on Netflix, are just what our trying times ordered

Adam Graham   | The Detroit News

In an era where nothing makes sense, "Supermarket Sweep" does. 

The ridiculous '90s game show, which features players dashing through the aisles of a grocery store like crazed gila monsters, is now streaming on Netflix. It's an absurd, brainless delight, a throwback piece of nostalgia that has become oddly comforting in these uncomfortable times. Just throw it on, sit back, and be lulled into tranquility by its fluorescent glow of bad fashions and promotional consideration.

The streaming giant has uploaded 15 episodes of the show from its rebooted run from 1990-95 and 2000-03. (The show originally ran from 1965-67.) The shows are cherry-picked from the split time period and watching them now is like flipping through a stack of old yearbooks; it's a trip watching the hairstyles progress from poofy and teased to the sky to flattened and dour. 

The 1990 episodes look like they were filmed in 1987, proof that the '90s truly didn't begin until Nirvana's "Nevermind" topped the charts. You can see the influence grunge had on fashions in the mid-'90s episodes — hair gets longer, flannel pops up in the audience shots — and the aughts shows and their murky facial hair might trigger a Papa Roach flashback or two.

The show doesn't require any special knowledge from its contestants other than a firm grasp of brand names and an understanding of the general layout of a grocery store.

Teams of two answer questions — sometimes it's unscrambling a brand name, and especially in the early episodes, often those brands no longer exist — in order to earn time to run through the aisles of the store during the titular "Supermarket Sweep," and fill their cart with the most expensive items within the allotted time. The team with the highest total grocery bill wins a chance to run through the aisles yet again, piecing together scavenger hunt-style clues that lead them to, you guessed it, more brands. 

Times change, but the "Sweep" never does, and there's a numbing calm to the sameness of the show. Players always go for the hams and the diapers; I've never seen anyone grab anything from the rows and rows of soda always prominently featured in the store's background. (Is it a real grocery store? And if not, why isn't it?)

Generically genial host David Ruprecht trots out from the middle of the store to start each show. Another host might get in the way, but Ruprecht is like the frozen carrots in the freezer aisle: a role player who's not out for the spotlight. He lightly engages in chit-chat with the players and keeps things moving along, although there's one episode in the Netflix allotment where he's just about floored when two players tell him they met on the internet. (Ah, innocence.) 

When it first aired, the fun of the show was watching the players dash through the aisles and imagine yourself doing the same; everyone wants to run through a grocery store and fill their carts with an obnoxious amount of hams, most of us will never get that chance. 

The fun of the show now, though, is the innocence and simplicity of it all. The world the show exists in is modern enough to be recognizable, but distant enough to be nostalgic. (Remember Mandarin Orange Slice?) The competition, if you can call it that, is light; the only strategies involve whether or not players should take time in the end to gather the bonus items. (The answer is always yes.) Irony and sarcasm do not exist in the store's aisles, and judging by many of the hairstyles, neither does self-awareness. And there's no pandemic or politics in the world of "Supermarket Sweep."

"The Sweep," as it's known, is due to return in the fall with Leslie Jones as host, but it will be hard to replicate the time capsule magic of the vintage edition. Anyone can toss hams into a grocery cart. It's everything else that makes "The Sweep" a much-needed escape from reality.