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with Chris Wolvie
21 Problems and Money Hand-Outs Were ALL of Them!
December 14

Hello, everyone. I'm Maury Povich. And, tonight, two contestants will vie for thousands of dollars in the return the most controversial game show ever. Let's see what happens tonight on...

SHOW: Twenty One
AIR DATES: January 9 to May 28, 2000
CREATOR: Robert Noah (based upon the original series)
PACKAGER: Fred Silverman Company, Gurin Company, NBC Studios
HOST: Maury Povich

Did anyone not growing up in the 50s even REMEMBER "Twenty-one" before the movie "Quiz Show" brought its controversy to the 90s? The show that put Jack Barry into hiding for a decade or so, it was a simple game show: two contestants answer questions to try to get to 21 points. The DIFFERENCE was that the contestants could be asked the SAME question because they were in soundproof booths with headsets on to drown out noise when it wasn't their turn. Hence the controversy. When Charles Van Doren was doing a Ken Jennings-esque run, it was learned that sponsor pressure got Barry to feed the answers into the headsets of not just Doren...but practically EVERYONE that played. It almost ended game shows as a WHOLE. But I guess seeing Ralph Fiennes acting as a man who was acting like he knew everything sparked interest in a comeback. And the "million-dollar game show" craze that started with "Millionaire" made NBC want to try this before "Weakest Link". Now, they're not to be blamed for trying to bring it back. What they SHOULD be blamed for is that they tried to make someone a millionaire in MUCH faster fashion...and that blew up in their faces.


Two contestants (including a returning champion) are placed in isolation booths where they can only hear the host and the crowd when the booth says "ON THE AIR".

With one booth closed to sound, the host gives the challenger a category and asks them to choice a question between one and eleven points, with the more difficult questions worth more points. The host then asks the multiple-choice question and the challenger tries to answer it. Getting it right adds points to their score. Getting it wrong gives a strike. Then the challenger's booth is closed and the champion's is open. The host gives the same category and choice. It is possible for the host to give the same question to both contestants, as neither knows whether the other got it right or wrong. The process continues until a) a contestant reaches 21 points (though the champion always gets a final chance if the challenger reaches 21 first), b) five rounds were played with whoever has more points at the end being the winner. If the challenger earns three strikes, the champion must still play the round and, quite possibly, strike out as well leaving no winners. Later in the run (as in second episode), both contestants were given the choice after two questions to end the game at that point with whoever has more points being declared the winner. If the game ends in a tie in any case outside of both players earning three strikes, a tiebreaker buzz-in question is asked with the first right answer deciding the winner.

One difference between the original and this one is that, like "Millionaire", each contestant has a "lifeline"...or, in this case, a "Second Chance" in the form of a friend to help the contestant with a question. It comes at a price, though; if two people cannot come up with the right answer, the contestant is given TWO strikes instead of one.

The winner of the game is rewarded based on how many games they've one. Originally, the first win was worth $100,000, the second $200,000, the third $300,000 and the fourth $400,000 before going back to $100,000 for the fifth win. Later in the series, they changed the "chain" to $25,000-$50,000-$100,000-$250,000-$500,000-$750,000-$1 million..

The champion of each game plays a bonus game for up to $210,000 more. The host asks up to six true/false questions, rising in difficulty with each one. If the champion gets it right, they get one point for the first question, two more for the second, etc. They can quit after any right answer to take $10,000 per point but one wrong answer ends the game and forfeits the money. Answering all six questions right wins the game and gives the contestant $210,000 for getting 21 points.

The gameplay was quite interesting, I must say. Having never heard how the original was played (never saw "Quiz Show" and never researched the game afterwards), the fact that both contestants were unaware of how the other is doing and could be asked the same question each round was quite exciting. I can see why "Inquizition" mimicked that "contestant knows only their own score" format.

The set was serviceable. Small but still having that "big game show" feel. The larger booths may've been a bit overkill but...other than that, no complaints.

And I personally thought it was cool that they had a live "light orchestra" playing the music for the first few eps. Shame they ditched them for recorded music afterwards.

The main problem I had with the show was that they gave away too much money for too little effort. I can understand they wanted to out-"Millionaire" "Millionaire" by having bigger payouts faster...but part of the appeal of "Millionaire" was that it WAS so hard to win that million bucks. Here, all a contestant had to do (originally) was win four in a minimum of EIGHT questions. Sure, the questions were tough but there was no buildup. People were always aiming for the 10- or 11-point questions if they even felt the LEAST bit confident...only to strikeout because they didn't know as much as they thought. And those that DID know? Well, one of the first contestants won over $1.1 million over four games and bonus rounds if that's any indication.

Maury Povich was NOT the most exciting of hosts. Oh, he tried, but he doesn't look comfortable when he's not trying to out-Jerry Springer Jerry Springer. He sounded rather bland when he should have been more excited for the people taking all of NBC's money. And, when he WAS excited, it seemed out of place. It was a "Catch-22" for this guy.

And why "strikes"? I'm guessing they wanted to keep the games from slogging but, with a five-round limit AND the option to end the game after two rounds, that shouldn't be an issue. They should've just deducted the points like in the original or, better still, just not did ANYTHING if the answer is wrong.

And, yeah, the bonus game didn't excite me. They should've just moved right along to the next game.


No one really asked for this return, even AFTER "Quiz Show" made, I'm certain. The concept was fine...but you just KNEW there were skeptics out there wondering if the producers weren't whispering into those headsets. If they every revive this again, make iso booths that can block noise WITHOUT headsets, give the same amount of money for each win (hell, just $50,000 or $100,000/game should do if you're making a "million-dollar" version) and ditch the bonus game. Maybe Jack Barry will be able to rest in his grave a bit better then.

NEXT TIME: Sale of the 21st Century...

Chris Wolvie can't hear, "Hit me" without thinking, "Don't TEMPT me!" Follow him on Twitter @ChrisWolvie and e-mail him at