Million Dollar Password -- An early look
Here's the thing about game show revivals: you have to satisfy people on two levels. For fans of the old show, you have to make the gameplay of the new show familiar enough to keep them happy and coming back. And, in order to attract new fans, you have to modernize and add touches that will suck in viewers and help build drama. That's one of the reasons why most new game shows have Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-style darkened sets with swirling lights, and depend on ominous music and tight camera angles to create drama.
Million Dollar Password, premiering Sunday at 8 PM ET, has all of that. They even nabbed Millionaire's original American host, Regis Philbin, to give it that extra bit of primetime oomph. But does it work? Well... sorta. Fans of the Allen Ludden / Tom Kennedy / Bert Convy incarnations might be dissatisfied with what they've done to their old favorite, but even an objective observer can see that the gameplay has some flaws that are going to need to be worked out for the show to succeed.
The idea behind Password has always been simple: one member of a celebrity / contestant pair tries to guess one-word answers based on the one-word clues given by their partners. In the old versions, the game would bounce back and forth between the pairs until the word was guessed or the number of guesses ran out. In this version, however, the game is played more like Pyramid: each pair has a series of five Passwords to guess in 30 seconds in an attempt to get as many points as possible. The pair with the most points after four rounds goes to the bonus round. That was a disappointing change on the producers' part; I know they want to build tension, but there was nothing wrong with the old method, where contestants and celebs can steal words based on the clues their opponents gave. Maybe they just thought it was too slow and "think-y" for them.
And, like most game shows these days, the bonus round is where the fun really begins. It's a graduated system, with each round being worth increasing amounts of money. Here, the range is from $10,000 to $1 million (there's a weird jump from $250k to the million, but that's a small quibble). The object is for the contestant and his or her partner to guess five passwords in a minute and a half. They only get three clues per word. As each round progresses, the words get harder and there are less chances for the contestant to pass or get something wrong. And, of course, the contestant has the chance to stop after each round and keep the money they've won or press onward, risking it all.
Well, not all. One of the glaring weaknesses of the bonus round is that if the contestant passes the second round of clues, he or she can't go home with anything less than the $25,000 won there. Not that "safety levels" can't work; Millionaire has two of them. But to have one so early, after a relatively easy round, really kills the bonus round's tension. So, all of a sudden we have a "nothing to lose" set of clues after two relatively easy bonus rounds. If it were me, I'd make the $100,000 level the safety level and give the contestant some real decisions to make as the rounds progress.
But, then again, one of the reasons they may do it that way is because the contest doesn't depend on one person. If the celebrity you're paired with screws up somehow, you might go home with nothing (there are no returning contestants here... two complete games were played in the episode sent for preview). In the opening episode, the celebs are Neil Patrick Harris and Rachael Ray. Harris, who it seems grew up watching game shows, is an excellent player, giving good clues and pulling words out of his hat when he's on the receiving end. Ray? Well, let's just say that for a Password panelist, she's a good cook.
Other celebs scheduled to appear are Rosie O'Donnell, Tony Hawk, and Susie Essman, among others. And, of course, Betty White -- who has been doing Password for so long that she met her future husband, Ludden, on the show in the early sixties -- will be there. Whichever contestants get White should consider themselves lucky, since she's probably the best Password player alive right now.
So, what about the rest of the show? Well, Regis is Regis: he busts on the contestants during the interviews and kisses up to the celebrities. This show is perfect for him. The lights and music and closeups give the show a more immediate feel than the old versions ever had, but that's par for the course in primetime. And, as you'd expect, the first episode contains a lot of choppy edits and fill-in voiceovers as Regis and the producers get a feel for explaining the game while keeping the flow going. That'll all get smoothed out over time.