The Game Show Devolves

Venerable franchises hone their style, and then there’s Baggage.

Meredith Vieira, hostess of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire

Hark! There have been changes to Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (syndicated, check your listings), none having to do with the absence of a question mark from its title. Why eschew an eroteme? Perhaps the quiz show’s producers believe that using one would transform the title into a pointless rhetorical question. In fantasies if not ambitions, everyone wants to be a millionaire at some time or another, including self-reproaching billionaires and ill-disciplined Benedictine monks. Perhaps the phrase is actually a relative clause: Jimmy, who wants to be a millionaire, is hindered in the fulfillment of that dream by his risible deductive reasoning skills… Jamal, who wants to be a millionaire, is the protagonist of Danny Boyle’s worst film ….

At the start of its ninth year as a daytime show, Millionaire remains a hit on account of its loyal audience of lazy stay-at-home parents, bright-eyed retirees, and TV critics hard up for material. Our hostess is Meredith Vieira, two-time winner of the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host. The way she twinkles, they ought to give her a Peabody, too. Whereas the personality of Regis Philbin—the host of the show when it first flared up and flamed out in prime time—is the rough equivalent a stinging slap on the shoulder, Meredith’s is a rub on the small of the back, comforting and kind and wholesomely flirty.

Millionaire still presents a series of multiple-choice quizzes, but now randomness rules, with a computer scrambling things—blur-da blur-da bloop bloop bloop—so that, rather than escalating, the difficulty (and corresponding profitability) of the initial 10 questions is a matter of chance. The whole production is less overwrought than in past years, with the mood of the background music ratcheted down from ominous to lightly foreboding. And it seems that contestants have been instructed to deliver their answers—”earthquake,” “Draco,” “Barcelona,” “spandex”—with promptitude. No more performances of tortured second-guessing and clammy equivocating that once offered the viewer so very much time to pick up the remote and turn to something better.

Last Monday’s installment began with Amy from Andover, Mass. (teal sweater, tight smile), who had left off having earned $61,000 and exhausted her lifelines. “But you’ve got a lot of love in the room,” encouraged Vieira. “A lot of positive feelings,” she added with the automatic warmth of kindergarten teacher. Amy swatted away some softballs before striking out on a query about which cheesy musical Love Never Dies is a sequel to.

Meredith then welcomed a charming lady named Lucy, who said she was from Alexandria, Va. This was not true. Her candied accent indicated that she was born and raised in Tennessee Williams. In response to one the host’s few invitations to chat—we get but a quorum of a small talk here—Lucy said that, winning a million dollars, she would spoil her grandson, specifically mentioning tricycles. By my reckoning a million dollars buys you, at retail but before tax, 11,000 Radio Flyer Classics, 1,100 totally rad off-road trikes, or two-thirds of a top-of-line Lamborghini three-wheeler. Alas, it was not to be, with Lucy graciously evaporating after demonstrating unfamiliarity with the epitaph of Alexander the Great, ignorance of Ronald Reagan’s preferred flavor of jelly bean, and an unwillingness to take a stab at guessing the name of the motorist’s posture delightfully known as the Detroit lean. The studio audience moaned—but soothingly. Lucy said goodbye: “It’s been brief, but it’s been wonderful.” Meredith showed her the door with a placid smile and not much fuss. She is the model of what the contemporary game show host should be and is—not very hostly, simply hospitable.

Yes, the era of unctuously avuncular figures such as Richard Dawson and Wink Martindale is at an end, as the mellow manner of Drew Carey further proves. At the beginning of Carey’s fourth year as Bob Barker’s replacement on The Price Is Right (CBS, weekdays at 11 a.m. ET), it is evident that he has moderated the hectic quality of the classic show. Wisely, he carries himself as the institution’s respectful steward, happy to be upstaged by the manic contestants. He advances from Plinko and Cover Up with polite efficiency. Yesterday, he had no sharp remarks for a Showcase Showdown contestant who failed to spin the wheel through one full revolution. Later, signing off, he reminded you “to get your pets spayed or neutered, please“—emphasis added to reflect his deferential air.

I have here, among my shelf of slim books of criticism, settled alphabetically between J. Hoberman’s monograph of 42nd Street and Clive James’ Visions Before Midnight, a merry number titled Daytime Television Game Shows and the Celebration of Merchandise: The Price Is Right,written by Morris B. Holbrook, who is less a fan than I. A B-school professor donning a Frankfurt School cape, Holbrook writes that The Price Is Right “preaches an unremitting ideology of consumption dedicated to an enthusiasm for merchandise” and describes Barker as “a messianic figure,” which sounds about right. Carey is a mere apostle, generating none of the ecstasy that led so many squealing female contestants to plant so many smooches upon his predecessor. “I shall refrain,” writes Holbrook, “from speculating about what quasi-nymphomaniacal impulses would make this experience so enjoyable.”

In this spirit, let us resist conjecture on the squishy Freudian dynamics motivating Baggage (GSN, weeknights at 6:30 p.m. ET), a dating game where three contestants reveal awkward truths—”I wear cheetah-print underpants,” “I suck on my dog’s tongue”—to one dater, as guided by host Jerry Springer. Last night, cruising for more data on this scene, I scrolled up to GSN—the Game Show Network—and came away rewarded. Family Feud reruns were celebrating Halloween week with the competing clans in fancy dress. The Newlywed Game—though rather flat, perhaps even in need of Bob Eubanks’ blow-dried vigor—continued to threaten to devolve into The Annulment Game. The commercials, a lot of fun, inspired considerable nostalgia for Tic-Tacs and Pringles and Eggos and significant distress about “Yumberry Sangria” air freshener. And then there was Baggage, where a hip-chick marketing manager was choosing among 1) an Australian who changed clothes three times a day, 2) a Canadian who conceived and produced a film titled Natural Born Hookers, and 3) the guy who sucks on his dog’s tongue.

The third man wasn’t quite totally honest: When his hound romped in to perform a French kiss, it was revealed that he merely spreads his lips so that the dog can lick every inch of his mouth lining. It wasn’t really reciprocal. A subdued Springer took it all in stride. Having toned down his ringmaster routine for the sake of the show, he was something of an audience surrogate—an almost-innocent bystander.

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