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‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ Wants to Be a Megahit Again

ABC has rolled out a celebrity edition of what was once the most popular program on television, this time helmed by Jimmy Kimmel. Can the game show become a hit again?

Scott Laven / Getty Images

In retrospect, the thing that’s most amazing about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is how swiftly and completely it conquered the world.

A year after the original version became a hit in Britain, Millionaire was given an American counterpart and introduced on ABC in August 1999 with Regis Philbin as host. Seemingly overnight, “Is that your final answer?” became a ubiquitous catchphrase; a year after its arrival, the director of men’s fashion at Saks Fifth Avenue was crediting Philbin with reviving the store’s sales of solid shirts and ties. Millionaire grew so influential that it even prompted stalwart Jeopardy! to double its suddenly paltry-by-comparison prize totals.

Millionaire dominated television. Its ratings blew most everything else on TV out of the water—even, heaven forfend, Frasier. With advertisers swarming, ABC would rake in more than $1 billion in the show’s first three years. (As of 2018, it had given out less than a tenth of that as prizes.) With its episodes devoted in equal parts to the actual game show and high-drama, oft-manufactured cliff-hangers that interspersed answers, it was widely credited with jump-starting a strange new genre of programming: reality television. (Survivor debuted less than a year later on CBS.) In 2000, The New York Times called Philbin “arguably the biggest television star in the country”; in 2011 he would remember walking around, referring to himself in the third person and telling anyone who would listen that “Regis saved the network!” “I was a big man!” he said. “I was a giant!”

At its best—and at the height of its ratings success—Millionaire was not so much a game show as an event. When it first debuted in the U.S., it was as a limited series of sorts, a prime-time extravaganza with episodes intentionally spread out. As it went from hit to smash to genuine phenomenon, the network milked the show for all it was worth. By 2000, there were hour-long Millionaire episodes on TV four nights a week, all of them in prime time. (In the words of ABC’s then-president of sales: “We’re going to ride this puppy as long as we can.”) International editions abound even today. On the German edition, the politician Wolfgang Bosbach listed Chancellor Angela Merkel as his Phone a Friend lifeline, only to twice get her voicemail when he attempted to call her. The original show in the U.K. was roiled by a cheating scandal in 2001 when rogue audience members coughed selectively to guide a British army major named Charles Ingram to the correct answers onstage.

Anyway, it has perhaps been a long time since you’ve thought about, much less seen, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Maybe you’ve wondered who was hosting—you’re pretty sure that Meredith Vieira took the wheel after Philbin left in 2002, and then you think you had a strange dream that involved Cedric the Entertainer at the helm … ?

Well, my fellow Y2K survivors, I bring good tidings: Millionaire is back. Kind of.

Last Wednesday, a brand-new version of Millionaire debuted, with Jimmy Kimmel as host. This incarnation of the show is a celebrity edition, with players including Jane Fonda, Eric Stonestreet, and Catherine O’Hara (more on her shortly), and winnings destined for a charity of the contestant’s choice. Millionaire has gone to great pains to present Kimmel as Philbin’s successor, trotting out the 88-year-old Philbin for a one-hour preview special to formally (if a little awkwardly) give the late-night host—an alum of Win Ben Stein’s Money and The Man Show, as well as a one-time participant in a celebrity segment of the Philbin-helmed Millionaire—his blessing.

The new show clearly hopes that you’ll forget most of what happened between, ah, 2001 or so and the present—two mostly ho-hum decades that wound down into the show’s outright cancellation in May 2019. Instead, the new Millionaire offers much of what the 1999 edition had: prime-time placement, yes, and a buzzy host. Perhaps most critically, the new Millionaire has what the very beginning of the Philbin version had: a tight time frame.

Audiences were exhausted by the onslaught of those four-episodes-a-night weeks: Early Millionaire episodes reliably pulled in 29 million viewers, but by the end of 2001, that number had dropped to just 10 million. ABC dropped Millionaire from prime time and slashed its weekly episodes in half, and it muddled around in syndication under a succession of hosts—Vieira, Terry Crews, Chris Harrison, and, yes, Cedric the Entertainer—until its cancellation.

This new Millionaire is an explicit attempt to recapture the magic of the original, principally by turning the show into an event once again. The show is back in prime time (buoyed, surely, by the success displayed in that slot by Jeopardy!’s Greatest of All Time tournament in January) and slated for an eight-episode run with new installments just once a week. The first episode was timed to dovetail with the series finale of Modern Family—in some canny-almost-to-the-point-of-craven cross-promotion, Modern Family turned off the lights in the 9 p.m. hour, only for Eric Stonestreet, a.k.a. Cam, to appear as the first Millionaire contestant literally minutes later, with Kimmel then going on to interview the Modern Family cast on his own talk show later in the evening.

Millionaire, of course, is also arriving in the middle of the coronavirus shutdown (the show taped just before stay-at-home orders were formally issued in California; out of an abundance of caution, the studio audience was left surreally empty). My views on game-shows-as-sports are well established (they’re great), but without Modern Family’s boost, it’s unclear if These Uncertain Times will be a boon for Millionaire.

Kimmel, for his part, is excellent. He plays the hits and drags out the drama, as when Stonestreet offered a dubious, high-stakes final answer, only to have Kimmel theatrically pause and then send the show go to commercial while Stonestreet—and the audience—squirmed. But mostly, Kimmel stays out of the way of his oft-funny guests.

A note on Millionaire’s questions: Jeopardy! this is not. As in the original, many of the questions—all multiple choice—are laughably easy: identify Stephen King’s genre of choice; ascertain whether “Macadamia” is a country. They’re what trivia nerds call YEKIOYD questions (“you either know it or you don’t”)—either you happen to know what the Statue of Liberty’s full name is, or you don’t. There’s no puzzling it out through clever writing in the way that there often is on shows like Jeopardy!, which makes a point of offering contestants multiple paths to a solution. Take last Wednesday night’s Final Jeopardy clue, for example: “She published under her middle name; her first name was Nelle, Ellen backward in honor of her grandmother Ellen Finch.” Perhaps you know the answer right away—or maybe you’re not sure, but you know that To Kill a Mockingbird centered on the Finch family, and you can riddle your way to Harper Lee. (That’s exactly what the episode’s winner, Londyn Lorenz, says that she did.)

Generally speaking, YEKIOYD questions are looked down upon by the trivia community. Good trivia isn’t just the recital of memorized obscurities—it’s about finding obscurities that are also interesting, both for the person dredging them up from their memory and for anyone learning them for the first time. It’s not that it’s more noble to lose because you can’t remember a Shakespeare villain than because you mix up Fresca and Yoo-hoo, but there’s an art to writing questions that are hard but not obscure just for obscurity’s sake.

But when it comes to question difficulty, Millionaire has never wanted to be anything but what it is. Setting aside that producers are probably going for a different, and perhaps larger, audience than just those with eggheaded inclinations, the randomness is in large part the point. As Michael Davies, the producer who brought Millionaire to the U.S. and is leading this new edition, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night, Millionairenever gets you with the individual difficulty of questions. It gets you with range.” And if the show were really so easy, he asked, how come only a dozen people in its history have gone all the way? (Casting might have a little bit to do with it, but I digress.) Much of the appeal of Millionaire has always been the squirming—the trainwrecks in slow motion as contestants reason their way to the wrong answer, while you holler from your couch and wonder how anyone could ever be so dumb. Surely if you were in the hot seat, you’d go all the way. (As the American Millionaire first took off, the British insurer tasked with paying off million-dollar winners filed suit against the stateside edition, claiming it had made the questions too easy. Summarized The Guardian: “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to become a millionaire—you just have to be an American.”)

This new edition offers a couple innovations. Lacking a studio audience, the show has changed the “ask the audience” lifeline to “ask the host,” giving Kimmel himself a chance to sow some chaos. (On the first episode, he correctly identified the Roy family as being part of Succession, which, I should hope so.) Contestants are also allowed to bring an expert of their choosing, with whom they can freely confer throughout the first 10 of the game’s 15 potential questions. The expert can be used as a resource once more in the final five questions, but only if the contestant chooses to sacrifice a remaining lifeline for the privilege.

This has set up the most obvious coup of the still-to-come episodes. While Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte brought his dad along on Wednesday—a lovely gesture!—O’Hara isn’t playing around: She tapped none less than Jeopardy! champion Brad Rutter, the winningest game-show contestant in history. There is nowhere to bet, but if anyone would like to take my life savings and put it on her, please do let me know.

(One other Jeopardy!-related note. The Millionaire revival has three listed producers: Davies, Kimmel, and Mike Richards, who is set to take over as executive producer of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune later this year. Among Millionaire’s yet-to-appear celebrity contestants is CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who was rumored a few years back to have been a—perhaps the—top candidate to take over as the host of Jeopardy! should Alex Trebek retire. Could some auditioning have happened on the Millionaire set? Who can say!)

This week, the show will return to see Forte continue his run and Nikki Glaser begin her own. Kimmel’s Millionaire is probably not going to alter shopping patterns in Manhattan, but come on down—it’s fun.