Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
A True Test of Summer Nostalgia
August 9th, 2009
The face of the primetime game show in North America was changed forever in the wake of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s premiere in 1999, when Regis Philbin came into people’s homes to give away millions of dollars and celebrate the simplicity of trivia challenges. The show became the very definition of appointment television, as it thrives on the sense that at any moment a contestant could break through that threshold and challenge for the million dollar grand prize. It’s a game of knowledge and strategy, and the sheer tension that it could bring forward is an example of television as its finest…in small doses.
When ABC decided they wanted more of a good thing, the show died: I don’t think that it was an issue of the show become stale so much as it was the overwhelming number of contestants and experiences that couldn’t help but feel repetitive. It was no longer an event, and therefore it was no longer an appointment, and the show’s move into syndication was admitting defeat, acknowledging that the show’s transferrence of traditional daytime game show (Jeopardy, for example) into the primetime sphere had come to an end. And since that point, further efforts to this effect have proven unsuccessful: Deal or No Deal stumbled its way into syndication after the once wildly successful primetime version tumbled aggressively, and FOX’s Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and Don’t Forget the Lyrics have become Friday night fodder rather than Thursday night counterprogramming.
So it is in the midst of a tough time for Primetime game shows that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire makes its return, triumphant or not, to ABC as part of a 10th Anniversary celebration. I went into tonight’s premiere actually kind of intrigued about how I’d respond to this bit of nostalgia from my own childhood (I was, after all, only 13 when the show first premiered stateside). While I haven’t really given the show much thought since it disappeared only a few years after its arrival, I’ve never thought the format was really at fault: if there’s anything Slumdog Millionaire taught me, it’s that the simple human quality that drives the series is compatible with highly dramatic and therefore highly engaging scenarios. So, as someone who appreciates the formula, I was curious to see how changes to the structure of the game and some added celebrity enhancement would combine with a sense of nostalgia and perhaps capture me in its spell yet again.
The verdict? The magic’s gone, but the quickened pace is a step in the right direction.
There’s a few major changes for the series, but the most impressive one is the decision to add a time limit to the questions. Providing only 15 seconds for the first set of questions, and only thirty seconds for the next set, makes everything move faster than it’s ever moved before. One of the things that was dragging the show down before was how much time people would spend on one question, and now that’s not even possible. It means that we get through three contestants in one hour without feeling like the first two were failures (only one of them was), which is an improvement.
It wasn’t entirely clear, since we never got into the big money questions, how this will effect the suspense of seeing someone reason their way through an important question. Where once guessing was a last ditch effort, now people are guessing because they have no choice. Logic would tend to indicate that how people guess when rushing is probably going to be what they’d guess if they had, so rushing them isn’t an issue, but I really love seeing people struggle with their impulses, unable to make that decision. Sure, when it happens every time it becomes problematic, but having a few of those would be nice.
The show also adds a fourth lifeline, “Ask the Expert,” which is an excuse to feature guests (tonight, ABC’s Sam Donaldson), but we don’t see it used so it really doesn’t make an impact. The bigger impact is that the last act of the episode is kept aside for a celebrity appearance, where guests like Katy Perry and Lauren Conrad (those are the two who they like to see, anyways) play a single question for $50,000 for their charities. I like charity, don’t get me wrong, but it’s weird for celebrities to sit there like they’re normal people, essentially promoting themselves.
In all instances, any of those changes are justified by Regis Philbin’s ability to appeal to any human being. The qualities that make him a bit of a manic talk show host (Saturday Night Live’s impression is really spot on) are dialed down here, and he is great at putting contestants at ease, making the right jokes and playing into the right moments. Even with Perry, who was clearly playing dumb and having fun with the thing, Regis is able to bring in an element of humour that doesn’t feel like mockery, which is a real feat.
The show is only as good as its contestants, though, and that’s where the premiere struggled. The first contestant, a 25-year old former commercial banker who has been working as a carnival supervisor in Canada since his job was downsized, dropped out on a pretty simple question that he dropped less because of his inability to get the right answer and more because the time limit forced him to guess and not quite reason out every bit of the question. The second contestant, meanwhile, did well enough to get $25,000, but unfortunately his lack of pop culture knowledge (“I don’t like the hip hop music”) kept him from reasoning out what the Obamas would have seen on their first date. The third contestant, of course, just barely got started before we were moving onto Katy Perry.
On the whole, I’ll probably keep watching for a bit: it’s an engaging way to spend an hour when there’s nothing else on, and there’s promises of some exciting big money moments to come. I question, though, whether there’s enough different here to really change any perceptions of the show as a daytime rather than primetime experience – the ratings will be the final indicator of this, I guess.
- It’s amazing how perceptions change: I really feel as if Regis has gotten older, and the set seemed smaller.
- Interesting that on an episode where the first contestant is a definitive example of the economic crisis, the next contestant is a student comfortable in academia. Combine with the comfortable former winners, all having paid off mortgages and cars and the like, and you have the exact opposite of Shark Tank which comes afterwards.
- The fastest finger questions weren’t awful, but I was a bit disappointed to see Presidential couples turned into cheesy nicknames – poor Lincoln/Reagan/Franklin.