Monday, January 17, 2011

Step up to the drop

When Million Dollar Money Drop premiered in December, Noel TiVoed it on the grounds that Archer would like the money calculating aspect.  What we couldn't have foreseen is that it's become a weekly staple for our family.

Even though the show partakes of many of the post-Who Wants To Be A Millionaire tropes that make almost every contemporary game show nigh-unwatchable -- a flashy Thunderdome set, overly talkative contestants, the apparent belief that waiting thirty seconds for the music to finish and a predetermined outcome to occur makes for compelling television -- it's got some surprising strong points that keep us coming back.

The premise is that the contestants (who compete in teams of two) start with a million dollars is $20,000 bundles.  They must place those bundles on platforms corresponding to answers to a question.  If they're not sure if the answer, they can hedge their bet by dividing the money among multiple platforms (with the caveat that they must keep one platform empty).  Incorrect answers are trapdoors down which your money tumbles; the correct answer platform stays horizontal, and whatever money you've placed there is available to use in the next round.  There are seven rounds.  The early questions have four answer choices, reduced to three in middle rounds, and finally to an all-or-nothing two platforms for the final question.  A clock counts down the time that contestants have to place their money; in an interesting twist, they get more time in later rounds.  They can exercise a one-time "quick change" option in early rounds to give themselves additional time to move money.

The game puts a premium on trust, intuition, and relevant information.  Typically the two contestants will end up throwing whatever they know about the answers at each other as they move money and the clock ticks down.  Often what they say is completely unrelated to the choice in front of them, and if they have to spend too much energy determining that, there's less time available for being sure of their choice.  Ideally at least one of the contestants will know or be able to figure out enough about the answer choices to make a decision -- then they have to convince their partner to trust them, even though the partner's instinct is usually to hedge the bet.  The questions are usually of a continuum variety, where incorrect answers are hard to eliminate because they appear somewhere on the continuum.  For example, one question asked the best-selling variety of Girl Scout cookies.  Unless you happen to know that information, your task is going to be to make some sort of logical argument to eliminate the less plausible bestsellers and focus on the ones that make the most sense.  But all the answers were Girl Scout cookies, so there was no way to use pure common knowledge to make a choice.

A fun little side game for the view is taking the answers (which are revealed first) and guessing the question; it's surprisingly easy, but that doesn't make it any less satisfying.  And of course, as the contestants decide how much money to divide among various answers, the running commentary at our house is whether we would be confident enough in our methods of logical inference to go all-in on one answer, or whether we would try to stave off bankruptcy by leaving a couple of bundles on other answers.  Having $100,000 or less, though, especially before the last couple of rounds, is hardly worth it; you can't break up $20,000 bundles so there's no way to make nuanced probability wagers.

And finally, there's the undeniable thrill of reminding yourself just how much money is going down those chutes when the contestants decide to hedge just a handful of bundles on a wrong answer.  One bundle buys a basic car; two buys a nice car; three buys a boat.  Five bundles is what we paid for our house.

Around our table half the fun comes from our children picking up on our preferred answer and making it their own.  "It's Thin Mints!" they scream in frustration.  "Put it all on Thin Mints!!"

Never thought I'd be watching another game show with dramatic lighting and a "never thought this would be my career path" host like Kevin Pollak.  But here we are -- and I must say it's fun.

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