Monday, June 02, 2008

Good...Not; Bad...Not

I'm not sure what I can say about Million Dollar Password. I didn't care for it but I'm not sure why. Or maybe I'm just not sure if I can articulate why I didn't care for it.

Let me clear one thing up first. My feelings about this show have nothing to do with the fact that it wasn't in Hi Def. Oh, to be sure it was an annoyance and it's something that I would have expected. After all, this is a studio based show not Survivor (which will be in HD; give me my Amazing Race in HD and I'll be a happy puppy) so you'd think that it would be easier for them to do the show in HD than it would be to do Survivor. But I am not an HD snob. I am not one of those people, like the guys on the forums of who say they never watch anything if it isn't in HD (one of these guys also said that he didn't watch black & white movies because he doesn't like the way that the actors in black & white movies acted). It's an annoyance, and if I record it on the PVR from an HD station it takes up a lot more space than a similar recording from a non-HD digital or (shudder) an analog source, but that's all it is, an annoyance.

So what was it about the show that turned me off? I guess it's a number of things, some of which are things that bother me about a lot of the primetime game shows that are on the air or have been in the past couple of years. In this version of Password the players and the celebrities participate in a four round "front game." This is a major departure from previous versions of the show. Each set of players and celebrities is given a minute and a half to put together clues and answers for five words. In other words it's not a case of teams alternating with the same word and the winner getting points based on how many clues were used, as was the case in the original show. After each celebrity and each player has done two minute and a half sessions (one with the celebrity giving clues and one with the player giving clues), the players switch celebrities. The player with the highest number of correct words wins the front game and goes on to the part of the show that actually gives money, working with the celebrity with whom that player completed the most "correct word" combinations.

In the original Password this part would be called the "bonus session," but in truth this is where the "real" game (as I'm going to call it for the rest of this review) lies. Inevitably it is a "ladder system" where players complete steps along the way. There are six levels: $10,000, $25,000, $50,000, $100,000, $250,000, and $1,000,000. At each level the person giving clues has to get five correct answers from the person getting them within a minute and a half. Only three clues can be given per word, and at each level the number of words you can miss (by passing on the word, not getting a correct answer with three clues, or giving an invalid clue) is reduced. At the $10,000 level the player can miss up to five times – there are ten words available – while at the million dollar level the player has to be perfect. They can of course quit at any time and take the money, and there is a safety point at $25,000. If you make it to that level you cannot leave with less than $25,000.

In the episode that was seen on Sunday night, the two celebrity players were food expert and talk show host Rachel Ray, who claimed that she did a lot of talking with her hands which she knew was against the show's rules, and actor Neil Patrick Harris from How I Met Your Mother. It became apparent relatively quickly that Harris was the better celebrity player as both of the contestants who went past the qualifying "front game" earned the most points with Harris as their partner who got the clues and he failed both of them at the $100,000 level, and as I recall he got four out of the five right in each case. I suspect that this is key to being a good player – celebrity or "civilian – at this level of the contest, the ability to make connections quickly. I can't imagine either player who made it to the "real" game doing as well as they did with Rachel Ray as their partner.

Still I think this aspect is part of what left me dissatisfied by the show. While I have to confess that this may be the only episode of any version of Password that I have watched in its entirety (I did have a copy of the home game though) my sense is that the head to head confrontation was the meat and potatoes of the original series, and the bonus round – which varied depending on the version of the show – was just that, a bonus. In this version the head to head competition is less apparent because they aren't sharing words. The show has actually turned into a race, with players trying to give as many correct words as quickly as they can. The "real" game takes up about the same amount of time as the competitive game in this version.

Aspects of this show remind me of a number of other game shows that are either currently on or are fairly recent cancellations. The biggest of these is the "other" Drew Carey game show The Power Of Ten, where the entire point of the competitive game was to decide a participant for the "real" game. The ladder set-up for this side of things is similar to a lot of game shows, from The Power Of Ten to the second (or was it the third) revision to the rules of 1 vs 100 to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? And the truth is that I'd like something a little different. The beauty of the original, limited run, incarnation of Duel was that the head to head competition between the players actually meant something other than you qualified to go against the game. In that show there was strategy that had to be used to beat the other player – and even selecting your next opponent – and victory in duels built the pot. In Million Dollar Password I always had the sense that the part of the game that we all remember from the days of Allen Ludden, the part where players competed directly to get the secret word from the clues provided, seemed more like prologue than the important part.

In terms of production values, the show seemed typically overproduced. The set is huge, bigger by far than anything that Alan Ludden ever worked on. The players stand at Lucite lecterns and see the words they have to convey to their partner on small screens, rather than sitting at a desk and getting the clues in that little viewing box. Then, during the "real" game the celebrity and the civilian stand without any props on a circular platform that mysteriously rises up above the rest of the stage with what looks to be a "chase light" of the show name that runs along the side of the platform. That of course could just be a visual effect made to mimic a chase light. As for that host, it's Regis Philbin so what can you really say. To paraphrase one of the Peanuts specials, "of all the Regis Philbins in the world, he's the Regis Philbin-est." You know what you're getting with Reeg; you may not like it but you know what you're getting.

I suppose at the heart of my antipathy towards Million Dollar Password is the show's assumption of the storied name Password. On its own it is a perfectly serviceable little game show that's not going to set the world on fire but at the same time isn't the worst of its kind on the show (like for example Moment Of Truth. But it has that name, Password, attached to it and I suppose the memories of the show – even for someone who only know it by reputation – lead me at least to hope for more than what I got. Apparently – according to Media Week's Marc Berman (my source for ratings) – the show did well in the ratings with a 7.4 rating and a 13 share, easily winning the time slot on a weak, post-sweeps Sunday night, although Berman points out that the show seems to skew toward the older demographic. And I expect that it will continue to do well in the ratings. I just can't help wishing that it was better in some way that I can't really articulate.

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