It's not totally bankrupt

Times Staff Writer

To the critics of unscripted television series, which veer further from reality with each new highly ridiculous high concept, humiliation is the heart of the matter. Some base human need in the audience is satisfied by watching strangers squirm, whether they're beset by a plate of worms or the brutality of modern courtship.

Is that why the clever new rip-off of "The Bachelor" is such a success? Is "Joe Millionaire" a cruel game, a festival of meanness that ridicules socially ambitious women, simple men and class pretensions? The answer is yes, and then again, no.

The premise of Fox's "Joe Millionaire" promises humiliation a la mode. Each week, a few of the 20 women trying to win the heart of a hunky bachelor who inherited $50 million will be eliminated. As if the pain of being rejected by a telegenic soul mate weren't enough, the losers will suffer said indignity on camera. The format forecasts even more torture for the winner, because on the seventh show, lovable Evan Marriott, who looks like he just galloped off the cover of a romance novel, will tell one besotted wannabe she's the one, then add the awful truth: He's really a construction worker, with an annual income of $19,000. (Don't you just hate it when that happens?)

The series' core deception could only have sprung from a well of gender hostility. It's the sort of idea a vengeful man who'd been dumped for a guy with more money might come up with -- a plot calculated to expose the mercenaries of the dating wars, otherwise known as womankind. One micro viewing demographic, a group of 20- and 21-year-old UCLA juniors gathered to watch a rebroadcast of the first two episodes in the no frills living room of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house, concurs. "This show is funny, because it shows women are gold diggers. I want to see them all cry in the end," says Javier Silva.

Half a dozen of his fraternity brothers agree that the only "Joe Millionaire" episode worth watching will be the denouement, and their predictions for that are cynical. "All the girls will lose interest when they find out the guy doesn't have money," says Sean Gilmore. Three of the SAE brothers who were recruited for an MTV dating show are wise to the manipulations of "reality" television. "The show just sets the girls up," Zach Hoover says. "They all say they always dreamed of being with someone rich. What you don't see is they probably asked the girls if they'd like to be with a millionaire. And they're trying to make the guy look like a dumb construction worker. They show him unpacking the shirt he wears to move dirt, like that's all he owns. He's like a Neanderthal."

"The Simpsons" or "Seinfeld" reruns would be more to their liking, but killing some time with "Joe Millionaire" isn't a complete waste. A Coke commercial starring Penelope Cruz gets the group's approval, and labeling the women vying for Marriott's affections provides sport. There's the "whiner," several "hotties" and a "dog." The show's premiere Jan. 6 drew more women than men, but by the second installment the breakdown was nearly even, according to Fox research. "Every female person I know changes her life to watch this," says fraternity member Pat McBrearty. "No guy ever knows any of the names of the girls on the show the way the girls do. And we don't want to see any of them get cut." More girls, of course, equal more girl watching.

The surprise of "Joe Millionaire," which has been so frequently described as "mean-spirited" that the adjective seems part of the title, is that it's more bittersweet than rancid.

"The production company did a fantastic job finding Evan, and we got lucky," says Mike Darnell, Fox executive vice president, alternative programming and specials. "This guy was beyond our expectations. There's a warmth to him. When you sit down with him and have a beer, which is what we did, he's a regular guy."

Thus the audience roots for Marriott, if not necessarily in a way the show intended. "I hope he hooks up with every girl on this show," SAE's Gilmore says.

Both Marriott and the butler who is his etiquette coach were given media training, standard procedure in unscripted shows that put nonactors on TV and on the publicity circuit. Credit that or natural charm, but "Joe Millionaire" is blessed with an articulate, thoughtful, humble and poised hero. He seems to be pained by lying, and expresses no pleasure in deceiving the girls. His stated goal is to find a woman who will "love me for myself." The more sympathetic Marriott is, the more diabolical the setup. Any woman who would let a net worth several zeroes shy of a million get in the way of infatuation is obviously heartless. The faux millionaire is the victim, not the woman who's been tricked.

Several of the women explain that their vision of romance comes from Disney cartoons like "Beauty and the Beast." Fairy tales make anachronistic dating manuals, so it's refreshing when they're updated. "Maid in Manhattan," the popular Jennifer Lopez love story, for example, manages to put a modern gloss on its Cinderella fantasy. The situation in the movie is much like "Joe Millionaire's," but with the genders reversed. Lopez plays a hotel maid who pretends to be a guest. When her prince, who can afford his $600-a-night room and then some, discovers the truth, he doesn't instantly forgive the masquerade. A happy ending is ultimately delivered, but the film deserves credit for making its hero something of a realist. If class differences and breaches of integrity nearly overwhelm his attraction to J. Lo, should more be expected of the woman "Joe Millionaire" dupes?

And just what does money mean to the show's hopefuls? It's clear that a few know how expensive breast implants can be. "We were trying to decide how much money we'd tell them he had," Darnell says. "I didn't want him just to be a millionaire. I wanted him to be wealthy beyond the girls' dreams. How much would be believable, but would be more than anyone ever thought of? We decided that $50 million was such a big figure that it was beyond most people's comprehension."

No matter what happens, the show wins. Because if Marriott falls in love, only to be rejected, viewers have a romantic tragedy to mourn. The woman he chooses has a shot at nobility: She can claim that his real income doesn't offend her, but that she can't forgive a liar. But if she can handle a whopper of a practical joke and invoke the byword of an erstwhile Fox show, "Bygones," then her devotion proves love conquers all, an even more satisfactory conclusion.

The third episode of "Joe Millionaire" will be rebroadcast Thursday at 8 p.m. on KTTV Fox 11.

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