If some physical evidence was needed of how sensational and crass modern television has become, one only had to watch the debuts this week of “The Moment of Truth” (Fox, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern), back for a second season, and “Million Dollar Password” (CBS, Sundays at 8 p.m. Eastern), the latest incarnation of the classic guessing game.
“Truth,” which returned to Fox on May 27, would have to be included on any list of the all-time most vile network television programs. Host Mark Walberg (not the former Marky Mark) may be hitting a career low, which is saying quite a lot considering that his past work includes emceeing such fine broadcast offerings as “Temptation Island” and “Joe Millionaire.”
Prior to going on the air, a “Truth” contestant answers 50 questions while being measured by a polygraph. Then, with the cameras rolling, Walberg asks the contestant some of the questions, all with several friends and family members sitting onstage. As long as the contestant tells the truth, he or she keeps on a path to win more and more money. A female voice that sounds disconcertingly like the computer in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” reveals if the person is telling the truth or not.
As you can imagine, the questions are not about favorite baseball teams and casserole recipes. On this season’s premiere, Curtis Frank, who looked like Patrick Bateman’s little brother, was asked, among other things, if he had watched gay porn, thought his best friend had hit on his ex-girlfriend, lied about having been tested for a sexually transmitted disease, had sex after hours in his family furniture shop, stole from the family business, and cheated on his ex-girlfriend, all while the ex-girlfriend, his brother, his best friend, and his mother sat less than 10 feet away from him.
Frank, barely relating any sense of shame, answered all the questions, regardless of the repercussions, until he racked up $100,000 in prizes. But at what cost? Well, his admission about cheating on his ex-girlfriend came one question after he admitted that he still had feelings for her. Frank, with the eager assistance of the show, raised the poor girl’s hopes, only to dash them to pieces minutes later. She sat on the stage, obviously devastated, no longer talking much and seemingly trying to hold back an onslaught of tears. You could argue that any woman who thought that this sleazeball was someone worth dating, and who was surprised at his infidelity, was only reaping what she sowed. But that does not absolve us, as viewers, from ogling her as she is being crushed.
And what about Frank’s mother? In an early question, he admits that he relies on money from her to pay his mortgage, and how does he thank her? By dragging her onto a stage to be humiliated on national television. She sat by as Frank made revelation after revelation that was upsetting to her. After Frank reached the $100,000 level and was debating whether he should go further, his mother, nearly in tears, quietly and sadly said, “I don’t want to see anyone get hurt.” Sorry, but that horse already left the barn.
What kind of person agrees to go on television knowing that his or her darkest secrets will be revealed, usually resulting in the public humiliation of the person’s loved ones? There has to be an easier way to pocket some dollars. And why do the friends and family members agree to be a part of this sadistic experience? They don’t even have the chance to win any money! Most importantly, why do we want to watch? These shows are like emotional NASCAR races: Audiences tune in to see the carnage.
I realize that television is littered with the corpses of a flood of manipulative and exploitive offerings, like “Fear Factor,” “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” and “Wife Swap,” so I’m not sure why I was so shocked and offended by “Truth.” The fact that we, as a consumer culture, embrace crappy reality programs is a bit embarrassing to me. But “Truth” takes its to another level. I’m ashamed that this show airs and, even worse, gets good ratings.
Watch if you must, but don’t plan on keeping any of your self-respect.
By the time “Million Dollar Password” debuted on Sunday, I was ready for a little nostalgia. For those of you who may not remember, “Password” was a long-running, popular game show that debuted as a daytime offering on CBS in 1961, before a prime-time edition launched the next year that ran for three seasons. (That’s six episodes of “Password” a week, all hosted by Allen Ludden.) The daytime version, in its original form, ran until 1967, and then ABC aired the show in substantially the same format from 1971 to 1974. The rules were simple: Two contestants were paired with celebrities and took turns trying to get their partners to guess a word by giving one-word clues.
(As an aside, “Password” figured prominently in one of the funniest episodes of “The Odd Couple,” when Oscar and Felix go on the show. If you ever see that it is going to be aired, be sure to watch or record it. Alas, it is not available on DVD yet.)
“Password” was as much about the interactions of the celebrities and their partners as it was about the game, especially since the prize money was negligible. Like many of the game and panel shows of the era, there was a certain laid-back nature to the proceedings, and you felt like you were at a really cool cocktail party, the kind you would never be invited to in real life.
The show was revived as daytime programming twice in the 1970s and 1980s, first as “Password Plus,” and later as “Super Password.” In these editions of the game, the passwords were clues to a puzzle, and a bonus round was added for the winner in which significantly more money could be won.
When I read that the game was coming back to television again, this time as “Million Dollar Password,” I was curious how much of the original format would be retained. Would this just be “Password Plus” with bigger prizes? Or would there be more? The answer, really, is both.
The game, at its core, is pretty much the same. Two contestants team up with celebrities (in the debut, they were Rachel Ray and Neil Patrick Harris) and try and guess five passwords in 30 seconds. After each person gets a chance to give the clues, the celebrities switch sides and play the game again. The person with the most correctly identified words wins and goes on to a bonus round.
Here is where the game changes. The new bonus round incorporates the modern structure of escalating prizes, with a risk in trying to advance to the next level (same as “The Moment of Truth,” too). First the contestant tries to get five out of 10 words in a minute and a half for $10,000, with steps escalating to $1 million, and each level a bit harder (five out of nine, five out of eight, etc.).
The game rules are fine. What is really different about “Millionaire Password,” though, is the production approach. It’s all 21st century effects, with a constant stream of synthy music and flashing lights (straight out of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”) while the game is being played. And the pace is breakneck, with only seconds separating the teams’ turns.
It’s as if the producers of the show are saying to the audience: “We know you’d get bored with the game like it used to be, so we’re going to make it seem more exciting than it is by pumping up the music and lights and rushing through it like we’re double parked.” If you don’t have faith in the game, then why put it on the air? I really don’t think the bells and whistles are going to draw viewers on their own. People watch game shows (or don’t) because of the contest itself. If the game works, then up the prize money to a million bucks and let it roll. The mish-mash of this simple, old-fashioned game with the sleek, speedy presentation is disconcerting.
The producers must have figured, if you’re going to steal the production design of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” then why not steal the host, too? And “Millionaire Password” does just that, with Regis Philbin taking the reins. But it’s not a great fit. When the game is flying by, poor Reege seems overwhelmed, trying gamely to keep up with his lines on the teleprompter as they fly by. Somehow, he also seems a little bored by the proceedings, just kind of regurgitating his old “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” vocal inflections (“one million dollars!”).
Even though “Millionaire Password” does not quite hang together, it’s still not a bad show. Both Ray and Harris were engaging as guests, with Harris especially clever in his jokes. And the game is more fun than the producers think it is. I liked the risk element added to the bonus round. When a Rhode Island bartender, who had all his possessions stolen, risked $100,000 to reach the $250,000 level, only to fall one answer short (he ended up with the safe amount of $25,000), it was a dramatic moment, one that didn’t need flashy lights or music to elicit a reaction from viewers.
There are worse ways to pass an hour on a Sunday night than watching “Millionaire Password,” even with the hyped-up elements. The show is fun enough and certainly harmless.
Which is more than I can say for the exploitive “The Moment of Truth.” If an alien culture decides to observe us, I hope they don’t judge us by “Truth.” If they do, we’re in as much trouble as the beleaguered friends and family members of the show’s contestants.