When I was little, we had a neighbor around the block named Mel, and Mel had as a next-door neighbor a little boy — let's call him Jimmy — who would ask him often where he was going. And Mel would tell him that he was going to see the queen.
This kept up for a while and one day it was somehow decided that Mel would take Jimmy, who I guess was pretty insistent on the matter, to see the queen; and it was further decided that this part would be played by my mother. And so one day Mel took Jimmy, blindfolded — this sounds creepy, but it was a long time ago, when to blindfold your next-door neighbor's child and drive him around until he had no idea where he was, was not considered strange — and delivered him to the presence of my mother, dressed as a queen, our living room having itself been made regal by emptying it of furniture. One of Mel's sons blew a fanfare on the trumpet to cement the illusion.
My mother has been bothered by this ever since.
I am reminded of these true facts, describing a lie, having just watched the first episode of "I Wanna Marry 'Harry,' " a practical joke in the form of a reality show, which premieres Tuesday on Fox (in a few hours, as I write these words). In it, a dozen American women find themselves at a bona fide English castle awaiting the arrival of the unidentified bachelor for whose "love" they will afterward compete and who will turn out by the episode's end to look a lot like Prince Harry of Wales, and who by the series' end will be revealed to them, as from the start he has to you, as Matthew Hicks, commoner. (He commutes to work, cleaning up oil spills — which he likes — on a borrowed bicycle.)
It is not the first such show to present a pauper as a prince — there was "Joe Millionaire," also on Fox — but here the device is not metaphorical. That the ruse is more elaborate makes it harder to maintain but also, as with many ridiculous things, somehow easier to believe. It's never claimed that Matthew is Harry; nonetheless, the Secret Service types, the arrival by helicopter, and the indeed startling resemblance, abetted by some crash-course training in etiquette, the box step and polo, argue to impressionable minds that he might be.
Given the artificial nature of the whole enterprise, and indeed, every dating show ever — down to the unlikely notion that love waits at the end — you would think that anyone reasonably in possession of her senses would smell a rat. And it isn't clear, after the first hour, how many of the women are close to buying it; there is some whispering and squealing, but there are also expressions of nonsuspended disbelief. It is possible, I suppose, that some are especially susceptible to such an illusion, having grown-up shows like this and in the age of the Disney Princess. (Before "The Little Mermaid," you could count the princesses on the fingers of one hand and still have a thumb and a finger left over.) But it also true that they have been edited for effect; season previews promise the usual assortment of conflict, drama, tears, kisses, confusion and catfights, in which you may put as much credence as you like.
"It's every girl's dream: Rich, handsome, and — for those who dream big enough — royal," runs the narration. That's not true, of course, but the narrative that's playing out here in any case isn't the fairy-tale one of prince discovering princess in a field of pretenders. It's the familiar romantic-comedy plotline in which an impersonator wins love while living a lie, and, deservedly, risks losing it when the lie is revealed. (Usually there is a more compelling reason than making a reality show — the fate of a nation is at stake or somesuch.)
"I have to convince them I am Prince Harry," says Hicks, summing up his quandary nicely, "but the goal is for them to like me for who I am." Good luck with that, Harry, or Matthew, or whoever you are.