Say it ain't so, Joe

Times Staff Writer

To creators of unscripted dating shows, soul mate shopping, even on national television and in competition with others bent on winning a highly eligible partner, isn't difficult enough. So they think of ways to make the undertaking more poisonous. What could be more fraught with peril than dating?

Well, what if the men's faces were hidden behind masks and the woman had to pick her dream guy on the basis of his personality? Or, find a divorced dude with four telegenic adult children, and the deal is that the kids choose a wife for their dad, who has to accept their selection. How about telling a bunch of women that they're vying for the heart of a multimillionaire, then zoom in for the money shot when the fellow reveals the awful truth to the winner: He's really penniless (although he had a really promising meeting with an agent last week).

The common theme of these concepts, which came to the small screen as "Mr. Personality," "Who Wants to Marry My Dad?" and "Joe Millionaire," is the potential to inflict considerable pain on people who value the opportunity to be on TV above anything. The latest addled twist on the formula of many hopefuls competing for the attention of one prize human is "Average Joe," which premieres tonight on NBC and will run for six weeks after sitting on the shelf for many months.

A beautiful 25-year-old former NFL cheerleader is temporarily installed as the princess of a Palm Springs palace, where she expects to meet her prince. Instead, she'll fish in a pool of 16 average Joes, men whose most salient qualities are being short, fat, sexually inexperienced, socially clumsy or arrogant. Are the average Joes a band of misfits or representative of the real men of America? Either way, don't they have a right to romance a babe?

Less bold courtship contests try to make sifting through a herd of pretty boys seem tough. "Average Joe," hosted by comedian and reality show survivor Kathy Griffin, knows how to design a real challenge.

Melana Scantlin, a woman who exhibits superhuman poise when she meets her suitors, must go on with the game and try to find the diamond in the rough. NBC promises a mid-series surprise. Excellent! We were afraid that ridiculing outwardly nerdy men and a nice woman who professed that her ideal man would have "a great sense of humor and a great smile" might get boring. Of course, watching the Joes, brimming with confidence, pursuing a woman the show so clearly thinks is out of their league is like pulling the wings off flies. The situation invites us to feel superior to the men and to take pleasure in watching Scantlin squirm.

A surprise hit, Fox's "Joe Millionaire" was a one-joke wonder, everyone thought. To run the scam again, the producers would have to find women living under whatever rock Us magazine doesn't reach. That rock turned out to be Europe, from which a harem of wannabes with a wardrobe of bikinis and a minimal knowledge of English was assembled and brought to a villa in Tuscany. Paul the butler is back, with a store of patience that rivals Scantlin's.

He'll need it, because the new ersatz millionaire is an itinerant rodeo rider named David whose stupidity and naivete bring to mind Joe Buck in "Midnight Cowboy." Nothing passing for intelligent conversation ever occurred on the first "Joe Millionaire," or on any other dating show, for that matter, so it's unlikely that a language barrier will present much of a problem. But for some reason, in its first three outings, "The Next Joe Millionaire" attracted only about a third of the audience of its predecessor.

It isn't surprising that these mutations of "The Bachelor" keep appearing. Even the most hopeless romantic has given up on the shocking, original notion that a person without a gun pointed at his or her head would propose in prime time and actually go through with a wedding. (Trista and Ryan from "The Bachelorette" threaten to, but they seem to be the exception that proves the rule.)

When these shows were new, the rituals of the "reality" romance genre offered a modicum of suspense. Who would be banished from the mansion, barred from limo-riding? The first generation of players was undoubtedly coached on how to dump someone, without seeming heartless, and a limited working vocabulary evolved. The dumped one was told that he or she was "amazing" or "awesome." An explanation for wanting to "deepen the relationship" was "feeling a connection." Blah, blah, blah.

The proceedings were always contrived. Now, they've become stupendously stilted as well. The current generation of players probably doesn't need much instruction. This crop has learned how to behave on TV from watching TV.

What's most disturbing is the ugly stream of gender hostility that flows beneath these programs. It's hard not to suspect that the real game is exposing women for what they truly are -- gold diggers or shallow snots -- or to rub the Darwinian cruelty of the dating jungle in the plain but hopeful faces of the poor average Joes. That isn't very entertaining. It's just mean.


'Average Joe'

Where: NBC

When: 10 p.m. Mondays, premiering today

Rating: The network has rated the series TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children)

Executive producer, Stuart Krasnow. Directors, Jason Raff, Tony Croll. Host, Kathy Griffin

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