Celebrities Just Want to Help You

Million Dollar Password, CBS’s Regis-ized revival of Password, posted pretty good ratings for CBS last night. The first two celebrities were Neil Patrick Harris and Rachel Ray (who apparently is part of a secret Islamist conspiracy with Dunkin Donuts); a future episode will pay homage to the original by having Betty White as a guest.

It’s always good to see a renewal of the age-old “celebrities meet ordinary people” format. There are plenty of reasons why it died out, starting with the fact that there are fewer celebrities who exist in that weird limbo between being too busy to do game shows and not being busy enough for anybody to have ever heard of them. In some ways the format can only work in prime time now, because a prime time show can get guests who may not be superstars but do have some name recognition, like future MDP guests Steven Weber and Rosie O’Donnell. Twenty years ago, people on that level — not quite stars, not quite has-beens — might have been staples on daytime game shows. Now, a daytime show would probably have to settle for celebrities on an even lower level than that.

Another reason the format started to crumble was that audiences increasingly wanted to get involved with the adventures of the contestants, rooting for them to win and watching their struggles and tragedies and triumphs. That’s hard in a celebrity game show, because the celebrities are so often inept. Not all of them are. Betty White was a game-show staple not just because she was married to the host of Password, but because she knew how to play the games and be a good partner for the contestants. And if you watch an old episode of Match Game you’ll know why the contestants usually chose Richard Dawson as their partner in the final round: because underneath the drunk act and the leering, he actually tried to come up with a good answer that the contestant might be likely to match. (If the contestant was a woman, you could be 75% sure that he’d match her because that way he’d get a kiss.) But so many celebrities on the celebrity shows either didn’t care if they played the game well or just used the whole thing as an excuse to call attention to themselves. The problem was that the audience moved toward caring more about the game than the celebrities, and shows that focused more on the contestants themselves, like Family Feud and Jeopardy! and Price is Right, were the ones with staying power.