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Who wants to watch a new celebrity Kimmel 'Millionaire'?

Jeff Simon

You couldn't get away from ABC's promos for its new celebrity Jimmy Kimmel revamp of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" for a while. They were everywhere. They seemed to promise us perfect low-impact television to distract us from the pandemic.

It was a celebrity version of the show that once starred Regis Philbin, but now boasted the much more lovable Jimmy Kimmel. If you're a movie lover, you'll remember an Indian version of the show in 2008 figured centrally in an Oscar-sweeping smash hit – Danny Boyle's endearing and hugely entertaining "Slumdog Millionaire," the year's Best Picture winner.

Some of us here have a personal relationship with the show. One of our fastest, smartest and wittiest colleagues – former columnist and now Assistant Managing Editor Bruce Andriatch – was once a contestant on the original show.

Bruce is a renowned charmer at this newspaper, which is why he was actually able to convince me to stand by on his big night in case he needed a "phone a friend" in a stumping movie, literary, jazz, or symphonic music question.

I watched him on the show in barely controlled terror. The prospect of Bruce needing me for help on a tough question and me not having the foggiest idea of the answer had me fantasizing guilt lasting a lifetime over the poor trusting guy's downfall.

Thank heaven, it never came to pass.

What did come to pass is that he had 15 minutes on the show, came away with $16,000 and, most importantly, his dignity intact. His gig on the show only increased my dislike for Philbin, the legendary tireless TV talk-pixie who is revered as something of an iron man all over television, but not by me. I certainly recognize his glibness, endurance and unearthly unflappability, but I've never been able to ignore the condescending smugness that always seems to be in there an inch down, waiting for a chance to move up.

During my colleague's anxious run on the show (anxious for me, not him), it seemed to me the dark side of Philbin was in evidence – that patronizing self-regard that somehow imprisons game show hosts in the idea that television is, of course, the whole world.

Let's just say that, inside showbiz reverence be damned, the fellow is no Alex Trebek.

A new celebrity version of "Millionaire" starring Kimmel is nothing if not an improvement, even if its premise in the coronavirus era meant it couldn't have a studio audience.

So they've got a couple new wrinkles on this new celebrity version – a contestant's pal to hang out and consult on the first 10 questions and an "Ask Jimmy" question to replace "ask the audience." Kimmel assures us (and I believe him) he is learning the questions at the same time the contestant is – and the answers, too. So he can, if the contestant chooses, weigh in on his opinion of the answer for the contestant (who, of course, is playing for charity).

So why did this strike me as a perfect escapist diversion for quarantine TV in Covid-19 America? Because, as the ABC promo told us, they'd been able to get some bang-up A-list and A-minus-list contestants for the show – not only the semi-ubiquitous Dr. Phil McGraw, but CNN's Anderson Cooper and, yes, Jane Fonda, whom we could see from a quick promo flash would be appearing on the show in a striking new shag cut version of her real gray hair.

Now that's impressive. The idea of Fonda, at the age of 82, hanging loose enough for Kimmel to appear on a TV game show is something that in American Celebrity Bingo definitely got my attention.

I was lucky enough once to do a roundtable interview with Fonda and a few other journalists. The woman we encountered was – predictably – formidably smart and articulate (Vassar, all that).

Getting to see Jane Fonda wend her way through the questions on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" could be fun. A lot of fun.

Unfortunately, the premiere of Kimmel's new revamp of "Millionaire" got off to a dreadful start last week, courtesy of ABC. In order to do a tie-in with the network's final episode of "Modern Family" the same night, ABC led off the new "Millionaire" with contestant Eric Stonestreet, a gifted comic actor in the "Family" cast. He filled 45 minutes of "Millionaire" television time with dramatically souped-up and elongated dithering over what to do on almost every dicey question. By the time he'd finished, we'd seen enough of Stonestreet as a supposedly comic actor to last a lifetime.

Kimmel, of course, was his usual gently teasing, sarcastic self, which almost made the show endearing. Stonestreet was padding his part so shamelessly – and melodramatically – that it made me yearn that much more for the show's conspicuous big "gets" before its conclusion later in the spring (i.e. McGraw, Cooper and, above all, Fonda).

It also made me vow to fast-forward through every contestant who wasn't the Big Ones after recording it.

In an era where real terror and tragedy await thousands of people all over the world – most tragically those who insist on serving others – I've got little patience for a brand new TV annoyance, even though the always likable and easygoing Kimmel is the center of it all.

If I'd known that Stonestreet was going to be the first contestant, and not McGraw, Cooper or Fonda, I'd have sped through his segment on my DVR with joyful velocity.

On the other hand, I'm ready for every bit of embarrassment and self-doubt that afflicts Cooper, McGraw and Fonda.

Unfortunately, that seems as though it will take a while. Tonight's celebrity contestants will be Will Forte and Nikki Glaser. A DVR fast-forward night for the show, if ever there was one.

What I like, in general, is ABC's gleefully anachronistic renewal of faith in quiz and game shows over the past couple years (would you believe Alec Baldwin having a grand old time hosting a new "Match Game"?). Low-impact TV suits this era – especially of the low-rent celebrity kind (with a sprinkling of authentic "stars").

If anything is the "comfort food" of TV programming in an era that needs it, it's that. Unless you've got a relentless self-dramatizer like Stonestreet, it's like a PB and J for lunch and meat loaf or mac and cheese for dinner.

Also in the new quiz show host's ranks these days is Rob Lowe, whose "Mental Samurai" on Thursdays has returned to show us ultra-smart contestants being thrown around an elaborate amusement park set to answer questions in short time limits.

I must say, it really does look hard to do. You can't phone a friend when you're stuck or importune the host either. You just have to tough it out while sitting in an elaborate contraption that is a bit like a sort of Crystal Beach Wild Mouse for one.

Young plebes, no doubt, have a better shot getting all the way through West Point.

The contestants who get to "Samurai" level deserve our regard.

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