Wherein Tim Goodman Tries to Figure Out NBC's 'Million Second Quiz'

THR's Chief Television Critic is forced to watch the Ryan Seacrest-hosted confusing and boring game show. He barely survives.
What the hell is going on here? Ryan Seacrest and "The Money Chair."

There are so many astonishing things about NBC’s Million Second Quiz that it’s difficult to choose an entry point. Let’s start with the title. No, wait, let’s go back to the premise. No, that’s way, way too complicated. Let’s just find the person who said yes to this and do something evil to them – like make them watch it.

Now, normally I don’t get sucked into a lot of the unscripted stuff on television. Did you see how I delicately used the word “stuff” right there? If I keep up that level of cleverness, I may be able to figure out how long a million seconds really is. Anyway, the point is, I had no plans to watch Million Second Quiz because I had already seen the promos and deemed them deeply boring. It looked like a show where clocks go to die. I could not let Ryan Seacrest steal 2,640 seconds of my life (which is 44 minutes, I say without actually knowing for sure…but I think the show runs on average about 44 minutes sans commercials, though having watched Wednesday’s episode it felt like being choked underwater in a doctor’s waiting room – I’m not sure how many seconds that translates to).

But it doesn't matter what I want. I was told to watch it because apparently I’ve done something horribly wrong and must atone. So I watched it.


My keen sense of observation first kicked in with, “Who the hell thought this was a good idea?” It then shifted to, “This is the most confusing game show ever not fully explained to me by the host.” And finally it settled on this: “Clearly this is a spoof of game shows.”

I really wish it was. I wish Christopher Guest’s name popped up in the credits. It did not.

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If you’re not familiar with Million Second Quiz, fear not, because I’m incapable of explaining it in detail other than to say it’s hosted by Seacrest, resides on NBC and is hilariously unthrilling for much if its duration while simultaneously being ridonkulous. That’s a tough two-fer to pull off.

Seacrest said the game show was “the phenomenon that’s sweeping the country” – I’m not sure at what second he said that but it was precisely the second where I laughed out loud for the first time. Tuesday’s show had came down to “a nail-biter that had the nation on the edge of its seats,” Seacrest said, without an ounce of believability.

Million Second Quiz will apparently be on every night – perhaps a million nights, just like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was – or until one of the contestants wins an ungodly amount of taxable cash or sleeps through his or her turn. What – didn’t I tell you about the beds? There are beds on this show. See, if you’re living on "Winner’s Row," you get your own cabana. Which appears to be outside on top of a huge building in New York, so be careful if you’re a sleepwalker.

The show is also live. It also has a bunch of people on the roof yelling along with Seacrest. It also has beds. I said that, right? It’s a game about “knowledge, strategy and endurance” according to the host. Yes, endurance. How much boredom you can take is not part of that equation, but should be. I could barely get through, well, less than 3,000 seconds of one night. But if you’re on the show, you need to be awake a lot and ready. You probably shouldn’t have contact lenses because that’s a surefire problem. Snoring is probably not a good idea. Bed-head is also something of a concern – I’m serious. They wake you up because the game never stops and if someone wins more money than you’ve made so far, they get your bed. No, really, they get your bed.

Are you following this? Here, have a gigantic bong. Better?

So it looks like four people live on Winner’s Row – a combination of one of those small Japanese hotel pods and a circus wagon painted white. You get to be on Winner’s Row if you did well in the "Money Chair.”  Now, the Money Chair sits inside “The Hourglass,” which is essentially the stage, shaped like – well, I’m not going to just tell you; press A, B, C or D and see if you win.

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Anyway, there’s also an app for Million Second Quiz because of course there is. You don’t reach this level of nonsense without an app driving at-home participation. Now, if you’re playing at home, will you kindly raise your hand so we can take you out of the gene pool? Ah, I kid. There’s all kinds of light banter like that from Seacrest on Million Second Quiz, or MSQ as the kids are totally not saying. See, if you’re playing at home, you can be selected to be a “Line Jumper.” OK, let me give you 34 seconds with the bong before going on. Tick, tick, tick. If you’re a Line Jumper, then someone from the local NBC affiliate wherever you live will find you, then surprise you (not very convincingly – it looks completely fraudulent) with the news that you’ve been picked to be on the show. Once you act surprised, NBC flies you out to New York so you can be on the show the next night.

“This is the Money Chair! This is where everyone in America wants to be,” says Seacrest, without making himself laugh out loud. He then explains that there will be three “bouts” – a challenger, a Line Jumper and then a “Winner’s Defense bout” that includes someone from Winner’s Row.

You’re writing this down, yes?

If you’re dumb enough to watch this show, you’ll see that a number of questions get asked. The person who is in the Money Chair is making $10 a second according to Seacrest, even during the commercials. But don’t worry, that accumulation of money appears to be as pointless as the rules to the show. When I watched, this happened: “Katie hits the ‘Doubler’ – stop the bout clock right there!” yelled Seacrest.

“What the what,” I said, using slightly stronger words, laced with confusion.

So yes, there’s a “Doubler.” Not to be confused with a Once-ler, from The Lorax – just in case you’re playing the bong app at home. When someone hits the Doubler, you can “double back” and apparently be sneaky or brilliant while doing it. Exciting, right?

While Million Second Quiz is playing – and you can see all of this extraneous stuff while the game is going on because if you’re like me, you’ll just sit there slack-jawed – people on Winner’s Row are surrounded by big TV screens that play only NBCUniversal content. There are taped bits from people employed by NBCUniversal. Those people -- Hoda Kotb, Bob Costas, etc. -- may ask questions. One was about the famous Taro Gomi children’s book called Everybody --- everybody what? Make your pick, the seconds are ticking away! Hurry! “What is the correct answer?” blurts Seacrest, while yelling to build excitement that’s not evident. “It’s ‘pooping’!”

It is, actually The correct answer is pooping. Everybody Poops – great book. Super simple. Unlike Million Second Quiz. If you miss a night of this show, don’t worry. There are taped flashbacks and live updates and stuff. It doesn’t make things more exciting, but eventually a tiny bit more sense is made. Although when I watched, someone on Winner’s Row was taped saying this, verbatim: “When my family was watching me on the Million Second Quiz tonight, I hope they didn’t think I took the coward’s way out.” I. Hope. Not. As. Well. Robot Man.

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At one point Seacrest yelled this, frantically: “We’re inside a hundred seconds – questions are now worth four points!” A couple hundred seconds later he said, “Wow! That was some drama!”

It wasn’t.

Just when I though there couldn’t be enough strange titles and rules to the game, the Winner’s Row people were then shown eagerly hoping to be “tonight’s Power Player.” Sigh. Really? You get that title by being on Winner’s Row and not sleeping; you play the game live on an iPad or something and your percentage of correct answers catapults you into the Power Player position. Once you're the Power Player, you then battle the person in the Money Chair. It's “a 400 second sudden-death bout,” according to Seacrest. I started to calculate 400 seconds and then I stopped.

Seacrest said "400 second sudden-death bout" like it was super awesome and exciting.

It wasn’t.

Then he looked into the camera and alerted people playing at home with the MSQ app that we were about to get “a Winner’s Defense battle!”

Seriously? Let me write that down. Hold please.

I was hoping the Winner’s Defense battle would require someone to describe Million Second Quiz in 140 characters or less so they could tweet me the answer and clue me in.

Remember “Clue” – that was a fun game.

Anyway, I started to keep track of all the random titles -- the Hourglass, the Money Chair, a Line Jumper, Winner's Row, Winner's Defense Battle, Power Player, but I'm sure I missed some. I then started to keep track of the rules but then lost interest. That’s when Seacrest let out a kind of excited whoop and said, “and we’re sweatin’ up here!”

They weren’t.

And just like that – or more accurately, just like 496 million seconds or thereabouts – the battle was over, there was a technical glitch involving something that should have been on screen, a person yelled the answer Seacrest was looking for and then he walked toward the camera saying that no, the game was not over, only the show was over. The game never stops. It’s played around the clock with endurance and, um, confusion and tireless faux enthusiasm, apparently.

Sure enough, before the credits rolled, someone else ran onto the Hourglass, but I couldn’t figure out if she was a Line Jumper or just a regular contestant. She definitely did not sit in the Money Chair, though. And she didn’t have bed-head, so she wasn’t in the Winner’s Circle sleeping wagon thing. Then Million Second Quiz ended.

It was kind of confusing. But it’s on again tonight. So there’s that.

E-mail: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine