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It's all about the Benjamins

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010; C01

It takes no time at all for "Million Dollar Money Drop," Fox's new game show premiering Monday night, to relocate for us that lurching, anxious feeling that is game-show gold. That's been a feature of television since the early quiz shows - when has it not been fun to watch other people reach for, and then lose, more money than they could ever hope to see again?

"Million Dollar Money Drop" comes just enough years after the runaway successes of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Deal or No Deal" to feel like an early bid at aughties nostalgia, but this time it's the money that's changed. Where recent hit game shows could content themselves with symbolizing the money at stake (with amounts written on signs contained in briefcases; or as current totals posted on glitzy, high-def scoreboards), "Million Dollar Money Drop" removes the abstraction by making $1 million in cash the star of the show.

They say a million dollars isn't what it used to be.

They say that because it's not right there, stacked up in front of them.

Sorted into $20,000 bundles, the million here feels more real: "Can we touch it?" asks 23-year-old Brittany, who, with her boyfriend, Gabe, is the premiere's first contestant.

Not only are they allowed to touch it, the whole point is to get attached to it. Egged on by host Kevin Pollak (a 53-year-old actor and comedian with a very long list of bit parts on his resume and who makes virtually no impression here), Gabe and Brittany must answer seven multiple-choice trivia questions to keep as much of the pile as possible. They have 60 seconds to physically place their money on what they believe to be the right answer.

Gabe and Brittany have been dating for a year and are now engaged. They would like to put their winnings toward a wedding. (A million dollars for a wedding? Is that all?) On their first question - which is supposed to be the easy one - they are given a choice of categories: Rock stars or "Sex and the City"?

"I never saw 'Sex and the City'!" Brittany cries. And when the answer to the rock star question turns out to involve knowing that Bono is the lead singer of U2 (and the ability to pick the right phone-pad keys that would spell out Bono), the look on Gabe's face provides an unintentional but telling commentary about a seldom-addressed racial divide in American popular culture: Gabe and Brittany are black, but there is no chance whatsoever that "Million Dollar Money Drop's" first questions would offer a choice between, say, "Waiting to Exhale" and hip-hop legends who have been famous almost as long as Bono has.

Nevertheless, Gabe and Brittany bet most of their cash on the answer "2666" as a way to spell "Bono" on a phone pad. Easy enough, but they hedge their bets by placing $80,000 on two other answers.

Now comes the moment. Trap doors open under each incorrect answer, and whatever stacks that the contestants have placed there fall away. There's something so simple and enthralling about it - there's a big boom as the doors open and the money plummets. Gabe and Brittany clutch one another and wince and quiver. A couple of questions later, he collapses on the floor when the bulk of their fortune is spared once more.

Wisely, Fox cut off the critics' preview reel while the couple still had $800,000 and a few questions to go, convinced that we cannot be trusted to keep the outcome a secret. (And they're right.)

No matter. Just a dose of the show leads to sweaty palms and heightened anticipation - always a good sign. It's funny how little it takes: Everything about the way "Million Dollar Money Drop" is built relies on one modern game-show trope after another, from the Lucite platforms, to the seizure-inducing laser light show, to the manufactured responses (the audience's; the contestants'), to the ladies who hurry onstage to help rearrange the bundles of cash for the next round.

What would make "Million Dollar Money Drop" more attuned to the times would be an epilogue at the end of the show, when people like Gabe and Brittany are forced to watch a significant portion of whatever they do win plummet down a hole labeled "federal and state taxes."

And then, how about we follow them as they spend what's left? That would be a different sort of show, and admittedly not as fun, but it would help balance out our never-ending dream of easy money.

Million Dollar Money Drop (one hour) premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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