Escapist wheel:

By Matthew Irwin

Forget about the war and win fabulous prizes

There is something surreal about taping a Wheel of Fortune "Armed Services Week" in San Diego during a war, but the irony of the spectacle doesn't hit until the Color Guard assumes position in front of the show's most coveted prizes: a brand new, black Mercury Marauder and a shining-red Lincoln Aviator.

In contrast to the façade of the television set in the San Diego Convention Center is the genuine sense of pride amongst the military contestants. They laugh and swap stories about the experience and talk about family in the audience or back home. They talk hopefully about all the people they've met who will see them on TV. Lt. JG Seneca Samuels talks about the show as an opportunity for the American public to see military people "having fun and having a good time."

Backstage before taping the first show of last week, Wheel host Pat Sajak tells CityBeat he knows the difference between supporting U.S. troops and supporting the Bush administration's policies, foreign or otherwise. And Sajak knows what it's like to be an unappreciated soldier in an unjust war: He's a Vietnam veteran. OK, he hosted a morning radio show, much like Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam, he says.

But he doesn't understand how people can protest the war in Iraq when it's generally the troops who protect their right to protest in the first place. "The trouble is when the military is demonized," he says.

Perhaps to exorcise the military's demonic image, Sajak, Vanna White and the whole Wheel crew drove down from L.A. to support U.S. troops with an Armed Services special. While makeup artists paint her face, a gracious White is especially eager to offer advice to soldiers and families in San Diego left behind: "Laugh... it's a good feeling. We hope to provide an escape from reality and to give lots of money away."

White's cheery message recalls a scene in Michael Moore's 1989 breakthrough documentary, Roger & Me. Moore asks a jubilant Miss Michigan if she has a message for the down-and-out folks in Flint, Michigan who had lost their factory jobs. She answers that she hopes everyone keeps their fingers crossed for her when she goes to the Miss America Pageant.

While prepping for the show, Sajak takes a moment to expound on White's escapist philosophy. He says all he can hope to do is take people's minds off the war by urging them to worry about "consonants and vowels" instead. "People need a break," he says.

But one man's escape is another man's bountiful reality. The entertainment industry, Sajak says, has never done better than when "things are tough, especially now, with this war in the living room. As a country, we're not ready for a live war."

However, Sajak doesn't have any illusions about his profession. Despite his celebrity gait, a first impression shows him to be unassuming and kind. He knows that it's absurd to think about entertainment when there's a war going on. "In the entertainment enterprise, it's important to step back and ask if it's appropriate for us to do this," he says. "But you can't just fold up your tent and go home-bad things are always happening."

America's No. 1 syndicated TV show seems to be the break from reality people demand. But for at least one serviceman, the war is a reality the American public shouldn't be experiencing through CNN and FOX.

Airman first-class Ernesto "Ernie" Sanchez is one of the 15 servicemen and women vying for prizes at the Wheel taping. It's impossible, Sanchez argues, for the American public to escape from a war that they haven't been experiencing in the first place. "It's like watching a movie," Sanchez says. "It's not a reality to you. For us, the war has been there since 9/11. We watch planes go out with bombs and come back without them."

Contestant Wiamsmate third-class Sean Meetze is anxious about shipping out for Iraq this summer, so he's happy to get away from reality for awhile. He says wearing his uniform on TV was a conscious decision, a patriotic gesture, he calls it, to reassure the television audience and support the troops in Iraq.

For Samuels, the 20 minutes she spent spinning the wheel was a dream come true. She's is a member of the Navy Regional Southwest Project Handclasp, which coordinates goodwill endeavors. All her life she's wanted to be on the show. "I screamed for 10 minutes when I found out I would be on."

Despite all the American flags waving and uniformed people walking around, the real reason for taping the show in San Diego has nothing to do with the war at all. The cast didn't haul down to San Diego from L.A. just to support the troops and their families. On Saturday and Sunday, they shot two more weeks of programming "" a "College Week" and a "San Diego Week." For a trip that had been actually planned long before the war, the timing was "fortuitous," Sajak says, before lamenting his choice of words.

And while on the outside everyone's talking about the war, Sajak and White are busy focusing on the show and their makeup, and the contestants are busy being overwhelmed, ushered from the taping to the press room and answering questions. The uniformed contestants think about what they won, or what they should have won, and about going back to the base to wait out the weeks before the program airs, all the while knowing the outcome. For some, the game show is another opportunity, full of promise-a big, fat catch.

Sanchez goes back to the base knowing he won less in prizes than the cost of his hotel room. And Meetze will likely go to war, not only to protect the demonstrators who "demonize the military," but also, Wheel's right to hock SUVs and mid-sized sedans.

And America's right to escape war by changing the channel.