It is not without significance that the title of the hit TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire contains no question mark. It's not so much a challenge as a chipper invitation, as in, "Who wants candy." Not only does the show correctly assume that everybody wants to be a millionaire--what's not to want?--but, more importantly, it suggests that anybody can be. This well-lit re-enactment of the American dream is especially dramatic in a time of such enormous disparity between the obscenely rich and everybody else. The people on the bottom end no doubt know exactly how entertaining that fact is, but a large number of reasonably comfortable people are ready to dream without question marks.
It's an extraordinarily profitable dream for ABC and the Disney Corporation, of course, which since importing Millionaire from England with modest expectations have watched it consistently take top-10 slots in Nielsen's prime-time ratings--five or six of them, some weeks. No TV game show has seen this kind of prime-time popularity since the pre-scandal $64,000 Question in the 1950s, back when being a $64,000-aire sounded pretty good. The show is "the programming equivalent of crack cocaine," Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television told USA TODAY. Between 15 and 25 million people have watched it each time it has aired. People throw Millionaire parties. You can gauge your proximity to the center of American culture by whether you toss around the phrase "Is that your final answer?" and whether you have ever discussed whom you would call with your "phone-a-friend" lifeline.
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When the inevitable imitators arrive, of course, the genre will begin to cannibalize itself and dilute its audiences. In fact, FOX already offers its own lovably shameless rip-off, the redundantly titled Greed, a nastier version of Millionaire with a top prize of over $2 million, in which people work as a team but occasionally take in an extra 10 grand by facing off against another team member and eliminating her or him in the "Terminator" round. NBC is revamping the old Twenty One; CBS is planning both a What's My Line? revival and the grisly, hypercynical Survivor, in which 16 people are "marooned" in the South China Sea, on an island deserted except for the TV crew, with a cool million going to the one who outlasts his or her fellow castaways in "challenges of strategy, guile, and wits." The fight for its market share has begun, but Millionaire will certainly remain the gold standard. So it seems worth consider-ing how a show that is so repetitive and derivative and unchallenging can also be so oddly compelling to so many people.
To get on Millionaire, you first have to pass a quiz on a toll-free phone line, and then be the fastest of 10 people on the show to put four Kevin Costner or Brad Pitt movies in order from earliest to latest release, or to rank four geometric shapes from most to fewest sides, or to place musical groups in order from fewest to most members. Then, sitting on a high chair facing Regis Philbin and a computer screen, the ominous music going dadada-dadada-dum, you answer a series of multiple-choice questions, which allegedly get more difficult as the stakes get higher. If you're uncertain about a question, you can use one of three "lifelines": Ask the producers to eliminate two of the answers, poll the audience for its preferred answer, or phone a friend and ask for help. If you're asked a question you think you might get wrong, you can also just take the money you've already won and leave. It's fun and--on a set The Washington Post has accurately described as "Starship Enterprise goes Vegas"--sort of glitzy, but it's not exactly groundbreaking.
Perhaps the show is so popular because it celebrates greed and prosperity in a greedy, prosperous time. "The new quiz shows," Frank Rich wrote recently in The New York Times, are "the giddiest manifestations yet of a culture that offers a pornography of wealth almost everywhere you look." There are all those stories of 27-year-old, Internet-start-up-company-gone-public multimillionaires, for instance, and the up-up-and-away stock market. Millionaire, Rich suggests, embodies "a G-rated cultural value that unites the entire American family--greed!" It's part of an ideological glorification of avarice, and a replacement of the reality of increasingly unequal wealth distribution with various fantasies of individuals getting rich quick. "Instead of getting riled" by inequalities, Rich argues, "have-not and have-not-so-much Americans are looking for their own financial scores, especially quick scores." Millionaire helps them feel good about it.
There is certainly something to that theory. Game shows, for one thing, are always cheerleaders for acquisition and consumption, always about competing and winning and getting something for nothing, about spinning the wheels of fortune and getting the price right and buying vowels; the genre is by nature rah-rah about capitalism. And seeing ordinary people--the Florida postal clerk, the factory worker, the volunteer fireman, the Illinois stay-at-home mom--go from zero to hundreds of thousands of dol-lars in a matter of minutes, just for everyday bits of knowledge, can be riveting. The easy-ish questions--from the $200 "How many pennies are equal to one U.S. dollar?" to the $250,000 "Which of the following is not a monotheistic religion?"--foster the sense that it could be you up there. The ordinary-people stories and displays sprinkled throughout the show further that sense: Bob does a Cheech Marin impersonation, Jane talks about the little family newsletter she edits, John does a rap he did at a wedding. Such a that-could-be-me fantasy, while it gives a nice adrenaline rush, can certainly work to help you not see, and not think about, conditions of radical income inequality, and to love your greed.
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But is this really just a ritualized legitimization of avarice? The show is not, after all, about people winning the lottery or suddenly finding out about an inheritance. Millionaire is a drama of mobility. It offers a chance to imagine, over and over again, a dramatic change in life circumstances from doing something you've done for ages: taking standardized tests. It revives not so much the lazy fantasy of a quick fix as a particular, comforting fantasy that combines open mobility with meritocracy--especially resonant at a time when people seem to be making sudden jumps up the socioeconomic ladder.
On Millionaire, moving up may be nerve-racking, but it is also open, equal, smooth, safe, and friendly. Mobility is anybody's game. Everyone is welcome to enter the competition, toll free. Ordinary people with ordinary knowledge are offered great opportunities. Once you reach certain plateaus--$1,000, $32,000--you cannot slide back below them. You can stop anytime and still walk away a winner--it's your choice to risk going for more, which is exactly why there aren't more millionaires. Plus, other people are there to offer you a lifeline should you be a bit insecure. It's a dream of safe risks and cushioned anxiety. Yet it's also, technically speaking, a knowledge game, built around testing. Jeopardy it's not, but on Millionaire the ablest test takers do move ahead. Passing tests, in this dream, moves you up the ladder.
And this is not just any meritocracy. If nearly all of the contestants and winners turn out to be white, middle-class men, many of them named John, in this world that's just an eerie coinci-dence: They passed a test. They had the fastest fingers. The ablest contestants, in fact, are not so much the smartest ones as the most conventionally American. Millionaire's questions are mainly Trivial Pursuit-style Americana. You advance if you know which Spielberg film climaxes at Devil's Tower, which U.S. president appeared on Laugh-in, for which insurance agent Snoopy is spokesdog, whether or not Shelley Hack was one of Charlie's Angels or Julio Iglesias is one of the Three Tenors, which stomach reliever goes "plop, plop, fizz, fizz," who were Lady Day and Samuel Clemens; if you know sitcom theme songs and everyday sayings and cartoon characters. This is not greed being celebrated, but a dream in which being the closest to the statistical norm puts you at the top of the heap. Millionaire dreams a meritocracy of the typical.
Indeed, it's not surprising to find the first man to win a million dollars so far, a white IRS agent from Connecticut named John Carpenter, quickly appearing on Good Morning America, Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee, Late Show with David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, and the cover of People magazine with his wife Debbie, holding up wads of cash. The American celebrity system that scooped him up tends to celebrate the same reassuring combinations of arbitrariness and merit on which Millionaire cashes in, the same ambivalent compromise between equality and hierarchy: stars who trumpet their regularness, millionaires who merit their stardom and their riches exactly because they could be you. "I am not a leader," John Carpenter reassured People, which showed him watching himself on television, chatting with Letterman, laughing with his wife and dad and poodle Fenway, playing football with his buddies. He is heroically regular, a star of the everyday.