Tuesday, January 07, 2003
Joe Millionaire airs Monday nights at 9 ET on Fox. Check local listings.
Those who predicted that reality TV was a mere fad which would fade within a couple of seasons were proven wrong by the fifth season of Survivor, which, if perhaps not the party-inspiring hit of the first season, was at least enough of a ratings monster to justify a several-hours long finale special by CBS. Along the reality TV road to success, however, are littered the corpses of the wannabe hit shows that were too poorly thought-out, too derivative, or too confusing to find an audience. Even many of the hit shows were too brainless for my tastes: given that my interest in the next American teen pop star is about as high as my chances of taking Britney Spears to a Spring Formal, I wasn't a prime audience candidate for American Idol. (Didn't they call that show Star Search a few years back?) Temptation Island, The Bachelor, and Love Cruise were reminiscent of the hormonal mechanics of high school – why exactly do we care who's shagging who, even if there is a lot of money at stake? It's too artificial an environment for a "real" relationship to develop, so the only entertainment that can exist comes from the nutty things stupid people do when they know they're on TV.
With the initial novelty of reality TV long since past, there probably will be only two types of reality shows to find an audience: the proven concepts, like Survivor, which are slickly produced and cleverly managed by their producers; and the next-step shows, which take an existing-but-dull concept and twist it enough to make it intriguing again. Joe Millionaire is of the second breed, taking The Bachelor and Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire? to new heights of depravity by setting up a low-earning construction worker as the object of desire. His prospective girlfriends are whisked to luxurious surroundings and are told that the show's resident bachelor just inherited fifty million dollars. Once the poor schmuck zeroes in on his true love, he must fess up to the fact that he actually makes only nineteen thousand smackers a year. As the brilliant Fox marketers put it: Can love survive a fifty million dollar lie?
It's a delightfully evil concept, more than enough to get me to watch the premiere of the seven-episode series. Of course, we're all just tuning in to see the look on the girl's face when the plot is uncovered, but getting there is proving to be as enjoyable as the final reveal should be. Central to the plot is Evan, the construction worker (and sometime male model) masquerading as a poor little rich boy. The first episode gives us some time to meet Evan. We see him on the job, we talk to one of his friends, we watch him learn which wine to drink with which meal. He's the perfect subject for the show: affable, not too bright, and incredibly handsome. He also has the good sense to have a few moral qualms about the lie with which he has become involved, or at least the sense to say so on camera. Watching him wrestle with the deception and the guilt that deception brings should make for good TV – good enough for the next six episodes, at any rate.
Supplying some much-needed personality to the show is Paul Hogan (not that Paul Hogan), a professional butler who helps Evan to maintain the charade. Hogan's accent, easy manner, and sense of humor (watch his face when Evan asks what foie gras is) help to lubricate the show's workings. His presences also gives the proceedings a touch of authenticity, at least to American viewers whose concept of the ultra-rich lifestyle comes from viewings of movies like Trading Places. When the producers saw Hogan's performance in front of the camera, it must have been easy to give him the center seat as narrator and host, despite the presence of nominal hostess Alex McLeod (the former emcee of Trading Spaces), who is almost as bland as Evan.
Then there are the women of the show, twenty of whom arrive at the French chateau that Joe Millionaire uses as a home base. It's difficult to assess the personalities of twenty different women in less than an hour, and even more difficult to get a sense of any developing romance. Fortunately, by the end of the first episode eight of them have been eliminated, with the promise of seven more to go next week. With the numbers down to a mere five women (one to be eliminated each episode thereafter, presumably), it should be easier to keep track of the participants, and hopefully find someone for whom to root.
As clever as the premise is, one can't help but feel that with Joe Millionaire, maybe Fox has shot its own let's-find-love concept in the foot. From here on out, every participant in such a show will be asking herself: "What's the catch? What's the twist?" Of course, the knowledge that contestants will be called upon to eat highly disgusting foods hasn't stopped people from signing up for more episodes of Survivor. Who knows? Maybe the knowledge that a nasty shock may be in store will make future show participants more interesting to watch, and boring "regular" Bachelor-type shows will cease to exist. That's a reality I can't wait to see on TV.
Chris Holland watches a lot of TV that is probably rotting his brain. You can have his Tivo remote when you pry it from his dead, cold fingers.