Looking for love in all the wrong places
January 6, 2003
BY PHIL ROSENTHAL TELEVISION CRITIC
The promos have been a hoot. Twenty women vying for the affection of a hunk they think is worth $50 million only to discover that the clown they've been embarrassing themselves over is making less than 20 grand a year? Come on, that's priceless.
If Fox's "Joe Millionaire," which makes its debut tonight, is half as entertaining and satisfying as its ads, well, it will be one terrific series--and not just because it would teach future would-be reality-show participants a valuable life lesson about the trustworthiness of the people behind the camera and the price of playing their little game.
Unfortunately, TV producers and network execs often often don't limit their deceptions to the lab rats they exploit on camera. They often mislead viewers, as well. (Let's see if "One terrific series!" shows up in a future Fox ad for "Joe," attributed to this column.) The truth is the promos themselves could be a sham.
It's not so much that we're conditioned to doubt that construction worker Evan Marriott is really a pauper. There are, of course, rumors, though none have much currency, even with the suspiciously timed revelation that Marriott recently ran afoul of the law for failing to pay a highway toll.
And skepticism is warranted because Fox didn't send critics a preview tape in advance of tonight's opening salvo at 8 on WFLD-Channel 32. This is the network that sent out preview tapes of "Love Cruise," and everyone remembers what a quality piece of work that was.
But the real reason to be wary is that if "Joe Millionaire" isn't edited and produced just so, this wicked put-down of "The Bachelor" set in a French villa could play like one of those "Saturday Night Live" skits that take a single punch line and pummel it like Joe Pesci in "Casino," leaving it bruised, bloodied and badly disfigured.
Still, we root for it because its success could spell failure for its less forthright rivals. Like the prospective gold-diggers poised to be humiliated and shown up for what they are on national television, we want to believe in "Joe Millionaire" because Fox has tapped into an extraordinarily rich vein of disgust.
Who doesn't want to see the self-important, camera-hogging, conscience-free, money-grubbing dolts who populate everything from "Survivor" to "The Bachelor" to "The Real World" get their comeuppance? Besides the people who work on those other shows, that is.
"It's a pretty inventive swipe at us," said Mike Fleiss, executive producer of ABC's "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette," the distaff successor set to launch Wednesday. "I would probably do the same thing if I were in [Fox's] shoes, and so I can't get too [ticked]. But 'The Bachelor' is the real deal.
" 'The Bachelor' show isn't as cynical and I think that's ultimately why it works, because at its heart is romance. I think viewers like to root for real romance and not something that is as disturbed as 'Joe Millionaire.' "
Fleiss--who not so long ago gave Fox the Hindenburg of reality shows, "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire," and now is producing the WB's "High School Reunion," a glorified "Elimidate"--simply may not wish to publicly acknowledge the full appeal of his own shows.
The highlight of last fall's much-watched finale to the second run-through of "The Bachelor" for many of us, after all, wasn't the ultimate marriage proposal; it was watching Aaron Buerge string along the weepy and naive sacrificial lamb runner-up he ultimately ditched without a second thought.
It is no coincidence that "The Bachelorette" resurrects not the woman who supposedly emerged victorious in the first season of "The Bachelor" (though her romance was over before the series ever aired), but takes the spurned, embittered also-ran who came in second and offers her the chance to return the favor to 25 men stupid enough to sign up for this kind of public abuse.
Why do people watch NBC's "Meet the Folks," which returns Jan. 20? Not to see true love flourish, that's for sure.
Many of the suitors competing for a free trip on "Folks" hardly know the supposed object of their deep affections before taping begins. What's more, they are under no obligation to travel as a couple even if they do win. The thrill of "Folks" is in seeing these doofuses made to squirm.
"Joe Millionaire" at least offers the promise it will eliminate the pretense for viewers that it is anything but what it is--and that should have the fantasy peddlers a bit unnerved, even if the actual series turns out to be a bust.
"I think it is a bad bet, which shows you just how desperate the Fox network was to put that much money behind a show like that," said Fleiss. "I mean, they were desperate for two things--to try to generate some ratings, obviously, because they are in the toilet, but also to try to damage a great franchise like 'The Bachelor.' "
Hey, "The Bachelor" isn't so great.