Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Game Show Review: Million Dollar Password

I got home late from dinner on Sunday night, and so missed the first part of Million Dollar Password on CBS. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I was able to catch the episode Monday night, enabling me to share my impressions of the "newest" game show on the prime time scene. I say "newest" in quotes because Password is one of the true classic games, having roots as far back as the early '60s. However, Million Dollar Password is the first new version of Password in nearly 20 years, and so it's all-new for almost an entire generation of viewers who weren't even born when Super Password, the most recent previous version of the franchise, was on the air.

There's much to like about this new version. The basic premise of using one-word clues to communicate one-word answers to your partner remains intact. The producers have wisely chosen not to drag a single game out through an entire hour (as so many modern games shows do), but instead gave us two full matches in the single episode. The Million Dollar Game (I don't know that the show calls it that, but I need to differentiate it from the "Elimination Round," which is so named...) is fairly easy to understand and exciting to watch. Regis, of course, is a solid game show host, and keeps the game moving quite well.

That's not to say I don't have criticisms. The addition of a timer for every single part of the game makes this version of Password resemble its cousin Pyramid a little too closely. Also, whereas Password has traditionally been a competitive game, the competitive aspect of this version is clearly taking a back-seat to the single-contestant Million Dollar Game. I'm of the school of thought that the single-contestant part should be a "bonus round," and that the bulk of the game should be played in competition with another contestant. I also miss the "Password Puzzles" that were introduced in Password Plus and Super Password, but since that was an evolution beyond the original concept, perhaps their loss isn't such a tragedy.

Indeed, most of my criticisms with Million Dollar Password have less to do with this particular game, and more with trends that I've seen in game shows ever since Who Wants to Be a Millionaire resurrected the game show genre from near oblivion (note that not all of these issues were present with Millionaire itself):
  1. Does every game show these days have to be played in a round stadium, with the audience on all sides?
  2. Let the contestants (and the celebrities) have a seat! Don't make them stand up the whole time!
  3. I think the emphasis on the Million Dollar Game to the exclusion of the "Elimination Round" is a side-effect of so many games spending all their time on a single contestant vs. "the game" instead of players competing against each other. Competition isn't a bad thing. Don't run away from it!
  4. Yes, it's another Money Tree. Lots of game show fans hate these. I'm not so set against them, but do feel that it's an overdone concept. If you have to have one, this one works pretty well.
  5. Don't give the player the words ahead of time! (In Million Dollar Password, this only happens in later parts of the Million Dollar Game, to entice the contestant to take the risk of playing on.) Find another way to tempt your contestants!
  6. The audience should not applaud in the middle of clue-giving. Especially in a timed game that requires such deep concentration as this one, this is a massive distraction.
  7. Too many shows these days are clearly played (in studio) for hours, then edited to fit the one-hour time slot. This causes some suspense to be lost, because we know that a contestant that just won say, $50,000, isn't going to take his money and go home if there's still 15 minutes of the show left to go. Likewise, a contestant who won a round with less than a couple of minutes left in the hour is pretty much guaranteed to say "I've had enough," no matter how much money may still be potentially on the table. Game shows used to be filmed "live to tape" (some still do, of course, but every one I can think of that does so has it's roots going back more than 20 years, and no prime-time game show currently does). That is to say, the cameras only stopped (and editing only occurred) when a commercial break came up, or something unforeseen happened requiring the game to stop and the error to be fixed. More modern shows would do well to restore this practice. Let the game play naturally. Don't force it!
  8. For that matter, it isn't necessary for every show in prime time to be an hour long. Many (maybe even most?) game shows work quite nicely in a half-hour time slot. The fact that NBC is pushing Deal or No Deal into as long as two hours (on occasion) is pure insanity!
All that said, the first episode of Million Dollar Password is clearly a hit, with very strong ratings. I hope that these strong ratings continue with subsequent episodes. The show is actually a rather good one, but with a few tweaks, it can be truly great.

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