When “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” first hit primetime in 1999, host Regis Philbin laid out its base appeal in no uncertain terms. The show, Philbin told his audience, featured “people just like you, who called our phone number dreaming of instant riches.” In just 15 questions, someone could “seize this day [and] have the knowledge and the courage to change the course of their lives in one short evening” to go from someone who could be working in the next cubicle over from you to someone who could claim that coveted title of millionaire. The show was, for better and for worse, the American Dream incarnate. Watching regular people in wrinkled shirts sweat under the studio lights, relying on nothing but their smarts and gut instincts to guide them to a potential fortune, it was tantalizingly easy to imagine doing the same.
Twenty years later, Jimmy Kimmel and ABC have now brought “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” back in a way that, despite an obvious reverence for the original show’s huge success, largely strips it of the appeal that first made it such a phenomenon to begin with.
The first and most obvious deviation from the original iteration is that the contestants aren’t “people just like you,” but the established famous personalities and comedians that Kimmel has been entertaining on his late night show for years. Its first contestant is even the perfect ABC tie-in of Eric Stonestreet, fresh off the “Modern Family” series finale. And since they’re celebrities playing for charity rather than to make themselves millionaires (as some of them already are), the questions remain relative softballs until the $125,000 mark. That alone cuts the show’s intrinsic tension in half. It doesn’t help that, unfortunately, “Millionaire” started shooting without a studio audience as the coronavirus pandemic intensified.
Absent a crowd to play off of, Kimmel, an otherwise solid choice for the host of a show that both wants to make its contestants comfortable and gently poke their weaker points, has trouble locking into the kind of rhythm — or indulging the kind of excruciatingly long “is that your final answer?” pauses — that once made Philbin so compelling. That there can be no “ask the audience” lifeline only exacerbates this, as it becomes an “ask the host” option that puts even more pressure on Kimmel to play both host and spectator. He sometimes gets a welcome assist in the form of a backup player of the celebrity’s choice — whom Kimmel introduces as “the smartest person you know” — which works well when that person has a tangible rapport with the player, as is the case with Will Forte and his father, Reb. (The exception to that rule is Jane Fonda, a straightforward and decisive player, tapping comedian Louis Virtel in the third episode to help her; he’s a friend of a friend, but also a former “Jeopardy” player who worships the ground Fonda walks on, making for a fun dynamic even if Fonda, no slouch when it comes to championing altruistic causes, is too focused on winning the game to notice.)
Now, as Kimmel points out early on, this isn’t the first time “Millionaire” has tried out an all-celebrity format in its winding journeys from primetime to syndication and back again; Kimmel himself even competed. But launching the reboot with an explicit celebrity bent is a deliberate choice that, unfortunately, feels about right for 2020. In this version of the show, “a studded group of stars” competes to raise money for charity, but often still with an eye toward promotion as it would be if they were appearing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” “Thank you ABC for a great night!” Stonestreet says, before walking away with $125,000 for a local chapter of Autism Speaks, an absolutely good and laudable choice. But when he hesitates to gamble on the $125,000 he’s earned, saying he’ll make it up to the charity “in some other way,” it’s hard not to do some quick mental math and wonder why he couldn’t just, say, make up the difference himself. (Making a reported $500,000 per “Modern Family” episode, Stonestreet’s “Millionaire” winnings make up about 1 percent of what he earned for the final season.) This edition of the show isn’t a pressure cooker; it’s a neighborhood barbecue feigning familiarity in a fancy zipcode.
Adding another layer, of course, is the aforementioned pandemic that’s currently ripping the world apart from the inside out. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” couldn’t have seen that coming, so it’s not on the production — or the contestants picking charities benefitting, as in the unfortunately real case of Episode 3 contestant Nikki Glaser, runaway parrots — that it had to readjust to this new reality so quickly. But its fame-driven focus, and inability to recapture the frisson of stress that once made the show such a sensation, makes 2020’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” more a sign of the times than must-see TV.
“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” airs Wednesdays at 10 pm on ABC.