The show's many elements are ingeniously clever, but the traditional quiz-show format falls flat on the air

By Tom Gliatto and PEOPLE TV Critic
September 10, 2013 12:00 PM
Credit: Rodolfo Martinez/NBC

NBC’s new primetime game show Million Second Quiz wants to have you at your mobile device of choice, your thumbs typing away with urgency and delight.

On that level, perhaps it will succeed. But that isn’t the same as biting your nails in suspense or excitement.

Hosted by Ryan Seacrest – you were expecting Carol Channing? – the show airs live every night (except Sunday) through Sept. 19. It’s a fairly elementary multiple-choice trivia challenge, but built into an ambitious framework of bells and whistles and social and digital media signifiers.

Signifiers in this context means absolutely nothing. I’m just momentarily tap-dancing around the challenge of describing MSQ, as it prefers to be hash-tagged on Twitter.

Mammoth and Multi-Faceted

The show, as the title promises, will last one million seconds, and is designed for the era of The Matrix and The Hunger Games. It is mammoth and moves on digital tentacles. The broadcast portion unfolds on a breathtaking open-air set in Manhattan – with an hourglass-shaped frame towering over the “Money Chair,” where the reigning champion sits and goes one-on-one against his or her competitor. This chair looks like a cross between a giant Lifesaver candy and a futuristic time-travel portal. The opponent stands at a more conventional but still futuristic podium, the sort that has graced many a Golden Globes awards.

But that Money Chair – you could sell that thing at Design Within Reach.

Even when it’s off the air, MSQ rolls on relentlessly. By the time we tune in for Tuesday’s show, the two opponents we saw beneath the hourglass at the conclusion of Monday’s debut may have been pushed out by two new faces over the course of the day. An ongoing pool of fresh challengers is constantly being tested, selected from wannabes lined up outside the Manhattan studio. Meanwhile, especially skillful players using MSQ‘s digital platforms – social media like Twitter and Facebook and the show’s downloadable app – are always being harvested (I apologize if that makes them sound like organs) and whisked in from all over the country to the big-league game.

There will also be a constant live video stream of the “in house” competition and to the cheerful, studio living quarters provided for the current top four.

(Checking out this feed at 5 a.m. after an odd, vexing dream involving Beau Bridges, I found three of the four meandering slowly outside their sleep pods, like bears looking for trashcans to rummage.)

These many elements are ingeniously, if convolutedly clever – if we’re worried about American global preeminence, we can rest assured about creating stunt programming. MSQ‘s multiple platforms have created a game show that is more democratic and, if you’re inclined to play yourself, more personally involving than any in history.

Trending Topics for Questions

But the game that viewers watch on NBC still boils down to a traditional trivia challenge. The questions, we are told, can be based on whatever’s trending on Twitter (as opposed to the old-school “whatever’s in the news”), but the trivia format can still seem safe, even pat. It’s what you’d call the non-nuclear option.

In the opening round Monday night, for example, the two opponents stalemated for the first five questions. Even with the instant connections feeding the show, the pulsing music, the immaculate design, you still had a production frozen momentarily in time. It didn’t help that one of the questions was about Cocoa Puffs.

And, curiously, the escalating money tallies didn’t exert much pressure, either. There wasn’t a strong graphic element screaming, “MONEY! MONEY! MONEY!” This was why Howie Mandel had those sexy girls holding briefcases on Deal or No Deal.

“This is intense,” exclaimed Seacrest as the hour wound up. Well, it’s his job to say that, isn’t it? He was his usual zesty, personable and colorless self. I sometimes worry that if he spends too many more hours hosting, he may lose man’s innate ability to also be a guest.

Did you watch? Are you playing? Tell us what you think about Million Second Quiz in the comments below.