But the glut of competing series exposes the limitations of this overdone genre, says Ken Tucker

By Ken Tucker
January 11, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Four rival game shows fight for ratings

The best thing I can say about the revival of the old game show ”Twenty One” is that at least its twice-weekly airings (Sundays and Wednesdays) on NBC mean two fewer times ”Dateline” is on.

Beyond that, ”Twenty One” combines with CBS’ ”Winning Lines,” which also premiered this past weekend, Fox’s ”Greed,” and the show that kicked off the prime-time quiz-show revival, ABC’s ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” to make it official: The revival is over. We’ve heard seven too many lame, money-winning questions. Heard too much florid, pseudo-suspenseful theme songs. Seen one too many exposed-lighting-rig studio sets. Stop. Go away. Please.

Over the weekend, NBC’s entertainment president Garth Ancier compared the rival ”Millionaire” to ”crack.. Once you’re on it, it’s wonderful because you get these beautiful ratings. But nobody believes it’s going to work forever.” Unfortunately, Ancier’s entry in this crack war, ”Twenty One,” didn’t work very well even the first time out. This resurrection of the ’50s game show (the original was disgraced by the contestant-tampering scandal that formed the basis of the 1994 film ”Quiz Show”) may have stolen ”Millionaire”’s look, but its host, Maury Povich, ain’t Regis Philbin. (Let me pause here to contemplate the realization that I have just written the preceding sentence. I’m using Regis as a yardstick for excellence — these shows are driving me mad, I tell you, mad!)

Maury stumbled repeatedly during the first ”Twenty One,” which only makes him human, but what’s really bad about the show are its boring questions. It’s difficult to muster interest in a contestant winning when she has to know what the name of the airport in Las Vegas is. ”Twenty One” is kindergarten compared to ”Winning Lines,” which is, by contrast, so intricate, its final-round ”Wonder Wall” of 49 questions can’t even be contained on the TV screen — the camera has to PAN BACK AND FORTH across the answers, thus inducing motion sickness in even the most strong-stomached viewer. Hosted by Dick Clark and created by the Brits who brought us ”Millionaire,” ”Lines” is PCP to ”Millionaire”’s crack. And ”Twenty One” is a Quaalude. And ”Greed” is heroin.

And I’m 12-stepping it out of here: I’m going to stop watching these shows with every ounce of my will power. I’m Ken, and I’m a recovering game-show addict….