As if international relations aren’t tense enough, Fox is about to air the season premiere of “Joe Millionaire 2,” promoting it with ads that feature the question, “Does anybody know how to say ‘sucker’ in French?” If you want to visit Paris without having high-quality pastries chucked at your head, you should probably go now.
IN CASE YOU’RE lucky enough to have forgotten, the debut season of “Joe” sent a group of American women to a French chateau to compete for the affections of Evan Marriott, a man they were told was a multimillionaire. In fact, as they learned after the contest for his big, meaty heart was over, he was just a construction worker. Well, a construction worker who had done some fairly revealing and cheesy modeling, but . . . still, no millions.
“Joe” broke new ground as the first high-profile scam show — a contest that lied to the players about the nature of the game. The idea took off, and has since spawned “Boy Meets Boy,” “For Love or Money,” and “The Joe Schmo Show.”
It’s a tempting format, in that it allows for easier navigation of the mixed feelings viewers have about reality television. It may in fact be the only way for the genre to embrace the mix of devotion and contempt it inspires.
In a scam show, because the joke is on the participants, viewers can split the difference by rooting for the show to make fools out of its own contestants.
The flip side of this easy hook, however, is that reliance on a single well-kept secret makes a show’s success much harder to replicate. The huge ratings for “Joe” made a second chapter a foregone conclusion, but it was hard to imagine how they’d find women for another round who could be fooled.
Welcome to the international edition of “Joe Millionaire” (also known as “So Wait, How Much Is That In Krugerrands?”), premiering Monday on Fox.
The irony of repeating the big setup is that the setup itself was never what made “Joe Millionaire” good television. The money, actually, was almost never mentioned.
The women didn’t even know how rich Marriott allegedly was until they arrived, so painting them as gold-diggers never made much sense. Marriott’s bachelorettes weren’t money-grubbers; they were fame-grubbers.
Even had they been gold-diggers, none of those women ever intended to end up with Marriott and share in his mythical wealth.
A rich, agreeable, well-turned-out cheeseball like former “Bachelor” Andrew Firestone is one thing; Marriott was something else entirely. He was dull, he was dumb, and he was about as interested in a long-term relationship as he was in unfamiliar food — that is to say, not very.
The women didn’t even seem to like him, and they certainly weren’t trying to latch on to his oafish personality and kiddie-pool intellect because they thought he was rich and intended to marry him. They wooed him aggressively, but only because losing meant the end of their time on the show and their stumble through the spotlight.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that seeing the women look ridiculous didn’t work as entertainment, just as any good scam show intends. It’s just that it didn’t take the abrupt evaporation of Evan’s supposed fortune to punish them for their foolishness. What “Joe” accidentally revealed, to the unending delight of many, is that witless buffoonery in front of a few million people actually punishes itself.
The buzz about the show did result from the crass, cutthroat theater of the absurd that grew out of the competition among them, but that competition wasn’t about any particular attachment to Evan or his wallet. It was about good old-fashioned bitchy egos, as well as an all-consuming interest in staying on TV for as long as possible. If you came for your 15 minutes, why let the guy toss you out at 14 and a half?
You could tell the money wasn’t the issue, because while “Joe” was a great water-cooler show, there was never much talk about who would or wouldn’t leave Evan when they found out he was broke.
Instead, people talked about the intellectual race to the bottom, won in a squeaker by a Minnesotan named Melissa who described her dream to go all around the world and help children because she was a “mercenary kind of person.”
They talked about the borderline-unhinged behavior of the overly earnest Mojo, perhaps the one woman who actually did like Evan. In her case, though, her affection for him was so mystifyingly intense that she would have undoubtedly married him even if it had meant living in a one-room basement apartment for the rest of her life.
Mojo didn’t care about the money either. She was drawn, for whatever reason, to Evan’s anemic wisp of a soul.
They talked about Sarah, the secret bondage movie queen who wound up as the second-place finisher, and what she really did or didn’t do with Evan in the woods when they lost the camera crew. And . . . did she really try to explain it to Melissa later using a sock?
Of course, they also talked about Evan himself. Big, dumb, guffawing Evan, with his mouth-breathing and his bad dancing and his apparent inability to make conversation about anything, at any time, ever.
FOOL ‘EM, COWBOY
So if it’s really just a bunch of people acting like idiots, why even bother with the money and the scam? Why not just stick some dope in a Holiday Inn, usher in a bunch of women, and call the show “Who Wants To Go Out With This Guy?” It would be a lot cheaper than renting another chateau.
The truth is that they can’t abandon the millionaire setup, because when there’s no scam, there’s no “greed or love” conflict to put a supposed kernel of wisdom in the center of the show.
Without that silly little flourish, it would just be a nitwit picking between a bunch of similar-looking girls, and if you want to see that, you can go to your local bar on a Friday night.
For all the hand-wringing over its low morals, reality television invariably falls back on a surprisingly traditional set of values, particularly where dating shows are concerned. Even the first “Joe,” as tacky and trashy as it was, collapsed into a mawkish mush in its last episode, in which shy and sexually reticent Zora beat out trashy Sarah, partly because Evan suspected that Sarah was after the money he didn’t have.
Zora even chose to stay with lumbering, dopey old Evan even after she learned he was flat broke. There it was — a starry-eyed endorsement of the power of true love over greed, right there in the middle of a show so sleazy it was a cultural milestone.
And in case the missionaries . . . er, mercenaries in the audience thought the “happy” couple’s resignation to poverty made for a sad ending, the show surprised them with a million dollars anyway. Why choose between love and greed when you can have both if you know what you’re doing?
Of course, Zora and Evan never spent any significant time together after that, but that’s beside the point. “Joe” works the same way “The Bachelor” works, with a happy ending to the season whether or not there is a happy ending to the story.
The lie put over on the women, as cruel as it appears and as irrelevant as it is to the lunacy that makes the show strangely compelling, is ultimately what sets up the show’s morality tale and allows it to end in a swirl of bizarre, synthetic decency.
The new “Joe” will almost certainly be the same way. The women will look ridiculous, mostly because they will act ridiculous, and no matter how shallow and trashy the entire enterprise becomes, it will find a way in the end to spin itself as an argument for the notion that unfurling an enormous lie is the best way to stumble onto the truth.
Talk about a scam.Linda Holmes is a freelance writer who lives in Bloomington, Minn.