How ABC Caused Dobrow to Awe at the Greatness of Philbin

Media Review for Media People: 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'

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Last Thursday, as the missus and I settled into the couch for a few hours of telewhimsy, we discovered, much to our chagrin, that the cable airwaves had been temporarily hijacked by loud white men. In that context, happening upon the revival of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" seemed a godsend. After making a few comments about the general intellect of quiz-show contestants (dumber than you, smarter than Sting) and scheduling a consult with the cryogenist who keeps Regis Philbin looking so spry, we proceeded to watch. And, in short order, we gnawed off our knuckles in frustration.

Whatever they're paying Regis Philbin, it ain't enough.
Whatever they're paying Regis Philbin, it ain't enough. Credit: ABC
Maybe we hadn't noticed this during the heyday of "Millionaire" or maybe time had dulled our recall, but somehow the show gets away with packing six minutes worth of action into a 60-minute time slot. There's more built-in delay on "Millionaire" than on any program in TV history, save for the darling of the intelligentsia, "Deal or No Deal."

Nothing happens. Ever. Finally somebody answers a question and ... cut to commercial! After two segments, we began formulating plans to drown ourselves in the dishwasher.

Of course, we tuned in again 23 hours later.

Such is the allure of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Alternately the most involving and annoying quiz show on the air, "Millionaire" has mined millions of dollars from dawdling. While ABC killed its cash cow by airing it 38 hours per week during the network's pre-"Lost" creative slumber, the show maintained its pop-cultural cred even while on primetime hiatus -- witness Tina Fey's befuddled Sarah Palin asking to use a lifeline during a campaign-time "Saturday Night Live" sketch. "Millionaire" may have been gone (at least from ABC), but it clearly wasn't forgotten. So what better time to see if it still resonates with the masses than during the late-summer lull?

The show hasn't aged well. For its dog-days revival -- billed, with predictable understatement, as a "10th anniversary celebration" -- the producers behind "Millionaire" decided to emphasize short-term nostalgia and familiarity over innovation. Granted, I'm not sure what would qualify as "innovation" on a show like "Millionaire." You can't change the host. You can't revamp the swirly-lit set or its dark hues, which are as much a calling card as the "final answer" tagline. You can only tweak the rules so much with save-the-contestant gimmicks such as "double-secret helper person" or "ask a Baldwin." What's left, then, is a new "Millionaire" that looks, sounds and plays just like the old "Millionaire," with the exception of a celebrity-charity slot featuring luminaries like Wynonna and Snoop Dogg (nee Snoop Doggy Dogg).

That's why, whatever they're paying Regis Philbin, it ain't enough. For all his over-enthusiasm (he loudly bemoaned the injustice that one contestant has been forced to endure "a kitchen that has no ceiling and no cabinets!") and under-preparation (he muffed several names during the show's 11-night run), Philbin remains one of TV's most likable personalities. He ad-libs with ease and could probably make an agoraphobe feel right at home. Without Regis, "Millionaire" risks devolving into rote recitation of questions and answers. With him, the show occasionally achieves the feel of a barroom trivia night with old pals.

Don't buy it? Contrast Reeg's effortless oversight of the franchise with Meredith Vieira's handling of the syndicated version. From a gameplay perspective, the syndie show trumps its hyped older sibling. The contestants may be dowdier and the banter more clipped, but 30 minutes is clearly the ideal length for a show that ain't exactly action-packed to begin with. It forces everyone involved, especially the host, to get a move on things.

Outside of shuffling contestants to and fro with the gusto of a power-drunk traffic cop, though, Vieira doesn't seem very invested in her "Millionaire" responsibilities. This is entirely understandable -- the "Today" show is a step or two up on the prestige scale -- but it doesn't excuse sleepwalking through the half-hour with a painted-on smile and mechanical bursts of contrived empathy.

She hugs the contestants and clasps their hands with the warmth of a longtime friend, yet somehow still comes across as business-like and emotionally absent. This remove works just fine when Vieira issues a laundry list of shout-outs to "Millionaire" marketing partners (Capitol One plasters its name on contestants' checks, Skype sponsors the "ask the expert" lifeline doohickey, Animal Planet and Netflix find their way into the question pool), but otherwise it drains the show of its inherent drama.

Vieira is more administrator than hostess. Viewers deserve better.

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