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TV Series Review

Comedies come and dramas go, but game shows live forever. Your kids may not know it yet, but television quiz shows have been around for a long, long time. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is just one chapter, not the whole book. But that doesn't mean families aren't crazy about questions. "Millionaire revives family TV," blared an Associated Press headline. Larry Hyams, ABC's chief researcher, agrees, "It's very, very rare that you have a program like Millionaire that reaches every demographic group, where everybody watches together." Some people even seem to be addicted. Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse's Center for the Study of Popular Television remarked, "It's the programming equivalent of crack cocaine."

I'll admit it. I got hooked for a while. Then, as the weeks passed, I came down from my prime-time high and mused over the far-reaching socio-educational ramifications of this creature called "quiz show."

Back in the '50s and '60s, contestants really had to know their stuff. Instead of questions like, "In what city and state is Disney World located?," players faced brain-crunching interrogations such as, "Name five of the eight Republican vice presidents elected from the time of Abraham Lincoln's administration through 1900. Then name five of the seven Democratic VPs elected between Andrew Jackson's administration and 1900." That was an actual question asked on The $64,000 Challenge! Forget about multiple choice — that's just a modern crutch. Lifelines? Nonexistent. No one got to phone a friend or poll the audience — that would have been considered cheating.

To say that Millionaire and its peers are "dumbed down" is an understatement. But if you start making comparisons between everything else on TV and shows like Millionaire, Jeopardy, The Price Is Right and Wheel of Fortune, the games win hands down. Families are sitting down together, watching and learning without fear of indecent exposure. "TV night" should never replace "family night," but at least the terms don't have to be mutually exclusive. At worst, a Jeopardy "answer" might reveal the modern father of gay literature, or a Wheel girl may wear a slinky dress.

One more thought before I call the Millionaire hotline to see if I can qualify for the hot seat: Money. All the game shows have cold hard cash as their common denominator. The more money the better. The higher the stakes, the higher the ratings. You don't risk anything to play, but the motivation is much the same as gambling. That's a subject best dealt with upfront. Teens should know that quick cash rarely lasts, and never brings with it the satisfaction it seems to promise.

Still—I'll say it again—it's hard to find good clean fun like this on television.

So here's our own "million-dollar" question: According to Plugged In, which of the following TV shows can be classified as "family-friendly"? A) Friends B) 24 C) Sopranos D) Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Feel free to put me down as a lifeline if you need help with your final answer.

Episodes Reviewed: Spring 2000

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Steven Isaac

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