How ''Joe Millionaire'' razzes ''The Bachelor.'' As would-be brides compete for a fake fortune, the show's cocreator says he aims to give a new twist to reality TV
by Brian Hiatt
Call it unreality TV. ''Joe Millionaire,'' which debuts Jan. 6 on Fox, is a ''reality'' show based on an elaborate lie. On the program, 20 women travel to the French Riviera to compete for the hand of 28-year-old Evan Marriott, a handsome Romeo who recently inherited $50 million. But in the final episode, the women discover that Marriott hasn't inherited a dime and that he's a construction worker with no prospect of making more than $19,000 a year. According to the show's cocreator, Jean-Michel Michenaud, ''The question is, Can somebody really be loved for who they are, or just for what they appear to be?''
Such high-mindedness aside, the show may be a sign that it's getting harder to entice audiences with what are now reality-TV clichés. Michenaud acknowledges that ''Joe Millionaire'' is as much a commentary on such clichés as it is a reality show. ''How could we take reality concepts that are now so familiar to audiences and make them feel different?'' he asks. ''Here, it's the fact that the audience knows something that the cast doesn't. It's kind of a meta-reality show, because the real point of interest is watching how people are trying to present themselves on TV.''
''Joe Millionaire'''s producers hope that viewers will buy into the drama of the women's competition for Marriott -- as each episode ends with a ''Bachelor''-style elimination. But watching Marriott struggle to maintain the facade of a wealthy man is meant to be equally entertaining. ''It wasn't always easy for him,'' says Michenaud, ''especially as he was narrowing it down and getting closer and closer to the inevitable outcome.''
In the first episode, Marriott gets a style makeover, along with lessons in wine appreciation, horseback riding, and other high-income hobbies. Despite reports that Marriott periodically supplemented his construction income in the past with work as a fashion model, Michenaud says that the show's star is ''the real deal. He's a genuine guy who drives a bulldozer.''
If ''Joe Millionaire'' is a success, Marriott's real-life style may change. Though he wasn't paid a salary for ''Millionaire,'' he could end up with commercial endorsements or other gigs that would help him quit construction for good. Still, the chances of Marriott becoming an actual multimillionaire seem low -- unless he's offered a followup gig on ''Survivor.''