Who Really Wants To Be a Millionaire?

The perils of getting rich: NBC’s Windfall.

Still from Windfall

The first two episodes of Windfall (NBC, Thursdays at 8 p.m. E.T.), a got-rich-quick drama with Altman-esque aspirations, play as if they were assembled with the use of the beta version of a teleplay-writing program, or maybe with the input of a mildly deranged focus group. The show, about 20 neighbors who split a $386 million lottery jackpot, is a highly professional arrangement of clichés—a soap opera whose suds seem to come from an expensive bar of lavender gift soap. Still, there are some glitches.

For instance, any reasonable person would understand that many of the 20 would indulge in a spot of physical celebration, but must every instance erupt into a prolonged orgy of fist-pumping? Nearly everyone thrills to the sight of soaking lovers clutching each other in the rain, but … eight minutes into the pilot? And how many love triangles can one show handle? This is not to mention the show’s unashamed deployment of stock characters: the single black mom with two jobs on top of her schoolwork, or the smoldering ex-con-turned-florist’s delivery boy. “You scare me,” a blonde attorney coos to her tattooed felon friend. You know what happens next, which is always how it goes on Windfall, a shrewdly silly show offering something lovingly hackneyed for everyone.

Tonight, a before-they-were-rich prologue introduces us to a gallery of demographically diverse workin’ people with money problems: a threat related to the payment of a bar tab, the announcement of a nurse’s 8-cent-an-hour raise, some kind of trouble with Luke Perry’s character’s credit-card debt. Then, our group—friends, lovers, ex-lovers, future lovers, lovers-to-maybe-reunite, plus the pizza-delivery girl—finds its fortunes changed. Benzs are bought, philanthropic projects heedlessly launched, jobs shoved, and a 17-year-old elopes with his dad’s buddy’s Soviet-born mail-order bride-to-be so that he can become an emancipated minor and accept his share of the pot. But the kid’s also IMing with the shy-eyed teenage daughter of another winner, and while that Russian chick looks great in her USA tank top, man, does she have a sullen streak. The sultry criminal cannot claim his winnings in his own name, and that’s where the golden lady lawyer click-clacks into his web of sexy deception. In one special scene, the single mom climbs into a helicopter and out of her trailer park, running for the chopper as if it were the last one out of Saigon. And would you believe there’s a dispute about the rightful distribution of the cash?

Windfall has a seductive glow about it. Between the louche electric violets of the scene featuring the teenager’s hotel-suite fantasy bash and the ecstatic melon-yellows illuminating many a heart-to-heart, the show is eager to sell itself as a luxury item. The drama offers straightforward wish fulfillment at some moments (wouldn’t it be nice to build a pool and have intercourse in it while all the neighbors are at work?) only to turn itself inside-out and exhort us to hate the new rich and whoop with schadenfreude at their sorrows. Worn either way, the scenarios serve to tart wealth up and to mystify it beyond reason. “Like it or not,” one lotto winner says to another in the first-class cabin of a Paris-bound jet, “we’re different than most people now.” Yes, you have more money and less Hemingway.