Quiz Show

In two new TV game shows, the search for wannabe millionaires reaches the history egghead and the sports nut

You can't top those ABC spots for the new season of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire as an inadvertently revealing metaphor for the new economy. Share the magic as contestant after contestant throws his head back and roars in victory, heart-warming background music stoking emotions more appropriate to an Olympic triumph over adversity than to another mere "ka-ching." Have we really reached the stage where we're expected to feel warmth at the spectacle of modestly intelligent people cashing in for no very good reason? Apparently. With Millionaire stampeding into its second season, its trail littered with the corpses of sitcoms and serious dramas, the American public has voted to believe that anyone with Regis Philbin's blessings deserves to become rich. Even the previous high-water mark of American venality, the plutocratic 1870s, when cartoonists commonly pictured the Senate as a gang of moneybags in top hats, gave birth to a far less ravenous spirit of get-rich-now than we're enduring today.

The weirdest irony is that none of the other gold-rush game shows (the heavily promoted Twenty-One prominent among them) actually panned out. Maybe Reege's bumptious magic does the trick. Or maybe it's a narrative structure that adroitly plays off our willingness to cheer the graduated scaling of a not-very-steep mountain. Either way, the newest entries in the big-game sweepstakes, the History Channel's History IQ (1:30 and 6:30 p.m. daily) and ESPN's Two-Minute Drill (Mondays and Thursdays at 6:00 p.m.), document the powerful gravitational force Regis exerts. If the brainiac IQ immediately finds itself sidelined by its lack of bells and whistles, Drill makes the case for the intellectual value of memorizing the sports page about as well as it can be made. And both suggest that only by partaking in some measure of this all-out greed can any new show hope to survive.

History IQ is the start-up version of Millionaire. We never see an audience (even the canned applause seems somehow halfhearted), and the set features three podiums clomped on a single stage. The first contestant eliminated in the first episode won all of $100 and a PDA that looked to have been state of the art in 1995. Goofy host Marc Summers follows Reege's monochrome shirt-and-tie look, but there the similarities end. His jokes would bore the donnish ("you'd better answer this question [about Theodore Roosevelt] carefully, because I carry a big stick") and he can barely manage adequate repartee with the contestants. In comparison to the Sturm und Drang that Millionaire churns up nightly, this show suggests some exhumed TV Land relic. The program seems to have been shot on a leftover Eighties set, and the lighting favors the music-video blue that connoted tangled emotions for hard-rock dudes of the Poison era.

Intellectually, though, this show bankrupts Millionaire (which is surely the first production to endorse People magazine as sufficient reading material for the culturally literate). For this reason alone, it will probably fail: Who roots for eggheads, especially when they actually know stuff? The questions involve the usual History Channel guy themes, from war to machines of war, but at least they presume that the modern American can name a majority of the states. (Categories on the first show included early automobiles, Julius Caesar, and the Dust Bowl.) Admittedly, this is all relative: History IQ asks more of its contestants than Jeopardy!, but less of them than even the honest Fifties quizzes; surely Charles van Doren (latest publication: A History of Knowledge) will come out of book-writing hibernation and kick butt. All that said, the final round, in which a contestant wins $25,000 (an amount that looks as if it would bust the budget) by correctly ordering ten items in a ten-year period within a minute, demands far broader knowledge than any show currently on television. On the first episode, the easier events between 1931 and 1940 included the Los Angeles Olympics, Alf Landon's presidential campaign, and the repeal of Prohibition. Don't all answer at once.

I suppose I could bemoan the trampling of intelligence by crowds hurrying to download dot-com insta-cash, but that's the original American tale. Let's accept that any serious cache of knowledge is approximately as good as any other. Case in point: Two-Minute Drill, the sort of grown-up equivalent of NBC's Quiz Kids for the guy who can recite the career stats of either Frank Thomas, down to walks and strikeouts. (The real competition between IQ and Drill is which one will manage to unearth its first female contestant.) Didn't know there were two Frank Thomases (the first Frank Thomas played outfield for the Pirates in the Fifties; the second is currently the DH/first baseman for the White Sox)? Don't think of trying this show.

While the program's commercialization of bar talk strikes me as distressing (what's next, big-time darts?), the show honors the intense seriousness with which some men catechize the sports pages. Sample question: In the 1990 Super Bowl, the Giants ran a flea-flicker. Who were the players involved, and how much yardage did the play gain? Sitting in the hot seat for the titular two minutes, the contestants do their best to survive a barrage of questions delivered by celebrity guests. High scorers move on, and the eventual winner takes home $250,000 (less than the minimum NBA salary, by the way) at the very end.

Undertaken with the deep seriousness of a Congressional investigation or an Oxford oral exam, Drill manages the neat trick of neither condescending to nor kitsching up its material. It takes an almost irony-free approach to the topic, despite the smug presence of host/class clown Kenny Mayne, whom even my ESPN-averse wife knows well enough to despise.

Still, if money talks as loudly as it's doing right now, we might as well accept the commodification of every available store of knowledge. My real hope is that the antique homemaking skills that The Price Is Right tests will be supplanted by something more current. We could call it Soccer Mom Challenge and require contestants to work a full-time job, chauffeur the kids, fix dinner, and maintain a viable adult relationship. If you're going to be tested for knowing something, after all, why not make it something worth knowing?

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