Ten years ago, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” as hosted by Regis Philbin, hit North America like an atomic bomb. No. Not like an atomic bomb. That’s overstating things. It hit North America like some cheap and diverting fireworks. Yeah, that’s more like it.
At any rate, just about everybody (22 million!) seemed to be watching the thing. It felt novel, and a million dollars felt like an impossibly huge sum of money to win on a TV game show. And night after night, after contestant after contestant failed to win the grand prize, a powerful wave of tension and momentum developed.
This crested when John Carpenter, a soulless collection agent for the IRS, won the million-dollar prize by answering a question about Richard Nixon. Projecting the superiority and arrogance of a Vulcan, he hovered just slightly above the rest of, using his only Phone-A-Friend to call his Dad, not to ask for help, but to tell him he was about to win a million dollars.
After this consummation was achieved, most of us were done with the show. “Millionaire” was soon relegated to the touchy-feely limbo of daytime TV where it was presided over by limp presences like Leeza Gibbons, Tom Bergeron, Al Roker, and Meredith Vieira. Once stripped of Regis Philbin and the gravitas its prime time slot accorded it, “Millionaire” seemed content to build the self-esteem of their contestants, rather than challenge them. In the daytime version, everybody was a winner. There were fewer and fewer greedy brainiacs risking it all for a million, and more and more housewives content to do the smart thing and walk away with $16,000. In short, it became a kind of therapy rather than a competition, and the show faded into the background.
Well, Slumdog Millionaire brought the show back to the forefront of our consciousness, and ABC, hoping to capitalize on that, has created a 10th anniversary edition of “Millionaire,” that runs for two weeks until August 23rd. Digging into the vault, they’ve brought back Regis Philbin (who turns 78 at the end of the month!) for the show’s return to prime time.
As the reformatted show begins, images from previous years scroll by as if they were resonant events that were firmly embedded in our cultural memory. Selling itself as part of history, “Millionaire” tries to make us feel nostalgic about events that took place just a couple of years ago. This attempt to cultivate a retro vibe fails, as most of us are still wearing the same fashions that we were way back in 2007.
No matter, the opening, as always, takes us on a vertiginous aerial tour through the skyscrapers of New York. It’s opulent, this, suggesting the Trumpian vulgarity of taking a helicopter home instead of a cab. Watching, we feel a lust for money, and find ourselves in a giddy state of receptivity for anything that will give us an easy million.
The set, resembling the main bridge of a starship, is the same as ever. Disorienting lights that quickly focus on the contestant just as soon as the questions start, flash and strobe overhead. We hear the metronomic pulse of something like a heartbeat, as ghostly music swirls about, eventually straightening into a taut, vibrating hum once the question’s been posed. This musical embellishment is a kind of genius, amplifying the anxiety and tension to such a degree that we feel like we’re watching The Shining and not some game show.
However, this time around on “Millionaire,” they’ve tinkered with the rules a bit, making the game a little bit faster, but the primary “enhancement” is an increased celebrity presence, as anything that’s good without stars, must surely be even better with stars. And so, on a recent episode, we saw images of a spectral looking Wolf Blitzer flickering away in some remote location, as if imprisoned there as a hostage. Fulfilling his role as some sort of celebrity Phone-A-Friend, Wolf got the question about Earth, Wind and Fire wrong and the one about Foie Gras correct. (It should be noted that the contestant who benefited from Wolf’s knowledge of Foie Gras was a TV ready guy who attacked each question with the enthusiasm of a linebacker celebrating a sack. Determined to make everything he could of his 15 minutes of fame, he howled like a wolf whenever Blitzer’s name was mentioned. )
The other dose of celebrity we receive takes place at the end of each show, when a star saddles up and sits in the Hot Seat. If they can answer one question correctly, aided by their choice of four lifelines, then they get $50,000 for the charity of their choice. If they get it wrong, they get $25,000.
On a recent show, this celebrity was Sherri Shepherd, the stupid one from “The View.” Hysterically waving both her hands from the sidelines, her immense breasts rotated synchronously, like a Burlesque performer, with each wave. When Regis brought her out, Shepherd yelled and smiled just as she was supposed to, and then gamely promoted both her new sitcom and book. She was then fed a puffball question about a movie the production team obviously hoped she had watched. Of course, Sherri had not seen it. Unable to respond to the question, the only drama that remained was whether she could pick the right lifeline in which to have the question answered for her. The audience, her lifeline, answered correctly, and Sherri screamed, waved her arms about, and let her breasts jiggle wildly.
However, the real star of “Millionaire,” and the engine that drives it, is Regis Philbin. Normally, I want to smack all the peppy and energetic “personalities” who shine brightly out at me out from the TV set, but I like Philbin. Unlike the imperious and frosty Alec Trebek, he’ll mispronounce, even mangle words. He’s not a snotty foreigner with a high falutin’ education, he’s our neighbor, and it’s easy to believe that he wants us to succeed just as much as we want to succeed.
Irrepressibly positive, yet self-effacing, Philbin brings a wholesome, unaffected optimism to “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” As charming as a campy relative, he harkens back to a different, perhaps mythic era when the American Dream was something you actually aspired to and didn’t just watch unfold on TV.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.