WITH MILLIONS OF PEOPLE across America watching breathlessly over their chips and beer, the season's first episode of ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is kicking off with some quality dramatic tension. In the middle of a light-pulsing stage, surrounded by the polite howl of the studio audience, Regis Philbin and his first contestant face off. El Philbin's dressed like the Devil's advance man: black suit, black shirt, and black tie. His adversary, a horse-jawed, smarmy young man named Jim Meyer, mulls over a question that will, if he guesses correctly from four possible answers, pay off his college loans. Both of them sit at consoles fit for spaceship commanders and engage in a most sexless sort of flirtation. Only Regis seems aware that this is not a pivotal moment in Western civilization.

Having won $32,000 by answering softballs like "Who was the Republican nominee for president in 1996?" Jim scratches his jutting, Ichabod Crane-like chin and ruminates over a question that one would not normally consider a deal-breaker: "Who has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard in peacetime?" Well, Jim doesn't know, so he invokes all three of his "Lifelines" -- different ways of getting around actually having to know the right answer. First, he engages in "Phone-a-Friend," sponsored by AT&T, where you get someone you know to bail you out. But Jim's buddy, whom he's proudly informed us "was the head of her high-school debate team," doesn't have a clue. Then, he polls the audience, who has no consensus over the four options. Finally, he pulls a "50/50," where two of the three wrong answers are eliminated. But in the end, despite all these crutches, Jim gets the question wrong, and our fallen prince, uncomforted by Regis' congratulations, leaves the stage with the gait of one that has let his country down.

So what's the story with this Y2K passion play? Is it stupidity? Worthless junk? Music for the masses? None of the above. There's something plenty instructive going on behind Regis' coffin smile. Examine the discotheque hum of Millionaire, add the somber affect of NBC's Twenty-One, throw in the knowledge-free skill-set of The Price Is Right, and top it off with the studious, puritanical monument of Jeopardy!, and you have the four distinct sects that constitute America's one truth faith: the gospel of endless wealth achieved at any cost. Together, these four shows lead the choir in the Temple of Mammon.

With its atmosphere of a New Age church and its money-grows-on-trees reality, Millionaire stands at the mainstream. It's an analogue for a consumer base that has forgotten that boom is only the sunny side of bust; that in capitalism, what goes up must come down. Combine the longest peacetime expansion in U.S. history and the transformative effect of Internet culture, and you have the perfect climate for Regis' thrice-weekly sermon. Since its premiere last August, Millionaire has been a massive, unexpected success, bringing in an average audience of 28.5 million viewers. Predictable and scripted, badly edited to betray its illusion of spontaneity, and with the vast majority of its questions on the level of "Which awards show honors the year's best movies?" the program doesn't entertain or educate. Regis, who has long since perfected the art of looking friendly and condescending at the same time, seems to be counting his fee by the minute, smiling like a tour guide on his last trip through the museum. It's a mundane yet undeniable strain of performance art. The glitz and glam and ease with which people are handed over thousands of dollars is a commentary on the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't financial frenzy that has resulted in the middle class embracing the fairy dust of the New York Stock Exchange.

Buried beneath this muck, however, lie some redeeming elements. First off, the show has allowed Regis Philbin, morning television's closest thing to a speed addict, a bully pulpit to preach about diversity. "Why is it," he muses in his vague New England accent, "that most of our contestants are white men?" Reverent silence from the audience. "Not that I have any problem with white men. I am one!!!" Audience does not laugh on cue. "But seriously, lets get others on the show. Dial that numba!" Later in the same episode, he makes a plea for gender equity. "Only 10 of our 96 contestants have been women! That's silly! Dial the numba!" In another instance, a gay contestant won $500,000 and embraced his partner, without a phone call of protest; a strange landmark was nonchalantly erected in prime-time evolution. That which kills Ellen makes Regis stronger. Furthermore, Millionaire debunked the lie of Mensa for good, when a Mensa member went on the show as the very first contestant and -- after much chest-puffing about that organization being the intellectual version of the Illuminati -- biffed at the $1,000 mark. And there's no denying the comic relief provided by the friends, family members, and lovers who sit in the prime audience seats and function as the contestants' id, showing the agony and the ecstasy that the contestant, stuck trying to keep his shit together, cannot. Regis milks this dynamic for all it's worth.

Over at NBC, they watched the Millionaire juggernaut and got upset about getting destroyed in the ratings by a lottery posing as a game show. The indignity of it all! In a fit of pique, NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier drew a dark comparison for ABC's three-nights-a-week Millionaire strategy. "It's like crack," Ancier said recently at a meeting of television writers. "Once you're on it, it's wonderful because you get these giant ratings. But nobody believes it's going to work forever."

Apparently Ancier is not taking the long view, because on January 10, the Maury Povich-hosted Twenty-One had its series kick-off. A solemn, soulless program compared to the extravagance of Millionaire, the contestants, who have apparently been selected for their blandness, get excited about winning money the way botanists get excited about the Super Bowl. Maury, in clothes that increase his invisibility, perma-smiles his way through a show that seems to exist only as an answer to the massive success of Millionaire. The show brings to mind all the really terrible psychedelic bands that washed ashore in the cultural tidal wave Sergeant Pepper wrought; little fish gasping for air while a beautiful mermaid swims by. In contrast to Millionaire's practically pagan aesthetic, the set of Twenty-One looks like a backwater Lutheran church, all simulated wood grain and parquet floors. You expect to see organ pipes lining the walls. And in a nice bit of conceptual continuity, the two booths that isolate the contestants bring to mind confession boxes, as well as medieval diptychs (two-paneled paintings) portraying a soul in temptation, giving secrets to a priest on the one hand and a tail-swinging demon on the other. Will we ever separate money and sin?

Unlike Millionaire, Twenty-One wastes no time charging people over to the big money. Two people answer questions valued at five, six, or seven points, and the first person to get to 21 gets $100,000, delivered onstage by women in black cocktail dresses bearing trays used in casinos to sell cigarettes and candy. In the show's own version of Millionaire's Lifelines, contestants can bring out people to help them. When a mousy librarian named Jenny brings out her husband to help her with a James Bond-related question, he gives her the wrong answer. The looks exchanged between the two as he stumbles and falters are priceless. And in handing over $100,000 to a portly fellow named David, real comedy occurs when Maury makes a racy comment about the women this fellow could score with his new money. David waves his sweaty hands in protest and turns white. It's as if Maury has spoken blasphemy. If Millionaire reflects the jump-cut culture of the residents of the Internet, Twenty-One is for those who finally got an ATM card last year, those who watch through a window at the party going on at NASDAQ. But the irony-free contradiction of vacant piety and $100,000 hand-offs is a hypocrisy that renders the show a footnote.

The aforementioned shows pay lip service to the idea that knowledge is power, but for something completely honest, turn your channel over to CBS for the benignly packaged greed manifesto that is The Price Is Right. Here's a real wolf in sheep's clothing, with Bob Barker -- everyone's lives-in-Florida, see-him-twice-a-year grandfather -- leading an overweight, thrilled audience contestant through a number of silly games, all predicated on the idea that if you know the price of something, you deserve to own it. You don't know if it's funny or sick; strange-looking people dragged around like pigs by beautiful women in '70s-era cocktail dresses to view different troughs of food -- from the warm and comfy complete living room set to the home entertainment center. The whole thing seems so wholesome, but it reinforces an idea that's key to lowbrow American life: You don't have to know a thing to make it -- you just have to be lucky and work hard at that luck. The Price Is Right is the game show's contribution to lottery culture. A way to keep the working man down? A way to keep the serfs at the manor? You be the judge.

It wasn't always this way. There was a time when game shows were difficult. You actually had to know something to win money, and even then, it wasn't much. Intelligence had a currency and worth unto itself. In Magnolia, the character of Jimmy Gator presides over the Byzantine and tortuous What Do Kids Know?, which pits wunderkind 13-year-olds against adults in a melee of precise trivia. In Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren is loved for his good looks, but it was his patrician erudition that made him a perfect spokesman for products like Geritol. That he was the son of a famous poet made him that much more appealing -- a fact that would be compelling today to no demographic, or at least not one that watches much television. So how to explain that dinosaur, that artifact, that old gray lady we call Jeopardy!? Jeopardy!, where people never win over $10,000. Jeopardy!, which has all the sex appeal of an outdated edition of Britannica. Jeopardy!, which is hard.

Jeopardy! is pure Zen, a regular Star Chamber where the stupid are banished and the strong live to fight another day over questions of 17th-century British literature and modern-day geopolitics. Alex Trebek may as well be a Jedi master compared to the other hosts, who in comparison resemble mere peddlers of a quick fix. Here, in the House of Discipline, contestants vie for the pointiest head, not the fattest wallet. Money is employed as a bargaining chip to measure one's distance from oneness with the Gods of Cognition, who for these purposes are personified night after night by Trebek, with his gray banker's suit, fat silver watch, and thin smile, so skinny it seems a twitch. The contestants themselves act like apprentices to a guru, making little grimaces of pain when they get a question wrong, visibly shaken by the good fortune of a Daily Double.

Now in his 16th year as High Holiness, Trebek leads the defense against the stupidities of his competition. "It's unlike any show on television," notes Trebek on the Jeopardy! website (www.spe.sony.com/ tv/shows/jeopardy/). "The format is an exciting concept that challenges people to think quickly and make split-second decisions under pressure." Well, yeah, except that almost every contestant on Millionaire, Twenty-One, and The Price Is Right would be offered up as a sacrificial lamb at his Canadian, thin-mustached, I-have-a-degree-in-philosophy-and-you-don't altar. His seductive smarminess takes on a comic aspect when you visit the website. Emblazoned with a photo of Trebek that looks airbrushed for friendliness, and with silliness such as "Multimedia Fun" and "Interactive E-mail," you get the sense that the smartest kid in the class decided to come to Special Ed to dole out some wisdom.

So this is the state of game shows; it's a way of reading America's socio-economic tea leaves, running the spectrum from the bacchanal of Millionaire, over to the pious Old Salem of Twenty-One, to the tanning-booth inarticulateness of The Price Is Right, and finally into another hemisphere for the Divine Right of Jeopardy!. Only one requires any curiosity about human endeavor, and that's the one where you can't win more than 10 grand. Furthermore, each of them caters to a different demographic, from the trailer park to the Ivy-League faculty lounge. Such distinctions are illuminating, filling in the blanks of the Mad Lib that constitutes America's relationship to class, money, and intelligence.