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.