Ken Tucker
September 03, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Readers are constantly complaining that critics smugly hold themselves to be superior to the people they write about, so I am pleased to offer definitive proof that this is absolutely not the case. I called the 900 number shown on screen at the end of every episode of television’s new insidious addiction Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the one that enables you to take a telephone test to see if you qualify as a contestant. And I failed spectacularly: I couldn’t even place four U.S. Presidents in their proper birth order. And I called and took the test twice — the maximum allowed in one day — at $1.50 a pop (EW expense department, pls. note).

So now you know that I am dumber than all the dozens of citizens who have been paraded across the Millionaire set during its initial two-week run. You will therefore also understand that my appreciation for this quiz show does not derive from smarty-pants condescension; it’s merely the pathetic bleat of a man who himself is not worthy to sit in a chair opposite Regis Philbin.

Philbin hosts the show, an import from England, where it’s been a sensation for the past year. The American version is a virtual reproduction of its British counterpart, right down to the shiny-steel-girdered, blinking-light set that makes it seem like you’re watching people trapped inside a pinball machine, but with adult-size high chairs and music that sounds like John Tesh on Quaaludes. Millionaire takes any ordinary man or woman with an IQ higher than a TV critic’s and asks him or her a series of multiple-choice questions. Correct answers lead the contestant up a ladder of 15 questions, at the tippy-top of which is the hallowed $1 million goal. (To date, no one in England has reached 1 million [pounds], thus proving you shouldn’t be impressed by those fancy-schmancy accents.)

The host of the Brit edition, Chris Tarrant, favors black suits, black shirts, black ties, and affects a vaguely sinister demeanor when he asks a contestant, ”Is that your final answer?” — as if a ”Yes” followed by a mistake might result in the floor opening up and the poor sod plummeting down into the fires of hell.

Philbin may don the dark duds, but he’s still Our Reege — less satanic than nettled, ostentatiously nervous and self-centered (”Why’d you have to make me so nervous there?” he rasped at one dithering winner). In other words, he’s perfect. Given Millionaire‘s ratings — the 13-episode run has been winning its time slot, averaging 11.6 million viewers — he’s going to have to add another chapter to his Horatio Algeresque 1995 autobiography, I’m Only One Man, to crow about his single-handed resuscitation of the prime-time game show. Really, except for his assiduously peculiar pronunciation of the show’s title — he says ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” where any normal, pastel-wearing non-millionaire would say ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” — Regis is at his impatient best; every contestant receives the sort of treatment Kathie Lee Gifford is dealt whenever she brings up her children or her nightclub act.

As with any good game show, we as viewers are quick to root for folks who catch our fancy — my favorite was Norman Payne, a genial brainiac who creates crossword puzzles for a living but whose ascent unfortunately stalled at $32,000. The most awkward contestant for Millionaire‘s network, ABC, was the Elvis-necktie-wearing math teacher who, when asked to name the precinct in the network’s own NYPD Blue, cheerfully announced he never watched the show. This is the kind of thing that must give Jamie Tarses hives.

In its brief U.S. tenure, Millionaire has even survived a scandal. Computer engineer David Honea guessed rightly that Lake Huron has the largest area; the show insisted it was (get this — hee, hee) Lake Michigan. (All right, all right, I actually had no idea; left to my own devices, I’d have yelled ”Land O Lakes!”) But the goof was quickly admitted and turned to the show’s advantage: Honea was invited back for the show’s final episode, Aug. 29, a ploy guaranteed to attract a much-desired advertising demographic of large-body-of-water lovers.

Okay, so Who Wants to Be a Millionaire may not win the prize as best game show ever. Among the few still on the air, Jeopardy! — which features more female contestants and a lower nerd quotient — is more consistently suspenseful. But garishly snazzy Millionaire draws you in. And if ABC uses it sparingly, bringing it back in place of regular-season reruns or as a sweeps stunt, it could remain a periodic pleasure. Speaking of pleasures: You just know that someday, to goose the ratings, Regis is going to strap Kathie Lee down into that chair and ask her to name in descending order the countries with the worst child-labor laws.

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