It's been a year since the Fox television network shook off a fall ratings slump with help from a former underwear model posing as “Joe Millionaire.”
Now the beleaguered News Corp-owned network and its new top executive, Gail Berman, are hoping to catch prime-time fire again, this time with the perfect anti-hunk --”My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance.”
The mid-season six-part show, debuting Jan. 19, centers on a young bride-to-be willing to endure a formal engagement and wedding -- with all the trimmings -- while betrothed to the world’s biggest lout in order to win $1 million.
She gets the cash as long as she makes it to the altar and says, “I do,” without her family or any of the wedding guests stopping the ceremony to object. Her friends and relatives believe they are merely taking part in the filming of a reality show about a wedding.
Along the way, awkward, exasperating moments abound as the 23-year-old schoolteacher, Randi, and her slovenly, uncouth fiance slog their way through an engagement party, wedding planner meetings, introductions to best friends and family, a bridal shower and rehearsal dinner.
Adding to the social carnage of the proceedings, the show’s ”groom,” Steve, comes with a brood of relatives who are every bit as raucous and rude as him.
The bride’s family has no idea that the whole matrimonial enterprise is a sham being played out for money. But the joke also is on Randi, who thinks that Steve, like herself, is a reality show contestant duping his loved ones on national TV.
As part of the show’s con-within-a-con twist, Steve and his TV kin are actually professional actors, all deliberately doing their utmost to shock the sensibilities of the bride’s clan.
'Very difficult' for family
The series marks the latest creation from Fox reality TV guru Mike Darnell, the man behind last year’s “Joe Millionaire,” the more recent hit “The Simple Life” and the highly rated but controversial Fox special from the year 2000, ”Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?”
He said of all the reality programs he’s done, “Fiance” proved the most intense and was “the closest we’ve ever come to not completing a television show.”
“The family’s reaction is more than we ever could have imagined that it would be,” Darnell told Reuters. “It was very difficult for them, and that made it extraordinarily difficult for her. ... It’s hysterical.”
The show’s title pays homage to the hit movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But “Fiance” really belongs to a growing pantheon of TV fare that derives its entertainment value from treating viewers to the spectacle of seemingly ordinary people exposing their baser instincts for mates and money.
Fox looking for lift
The question is whether “Fiance” can do for Fox this year what was accomplished last January by “Joe Millionaire,” in which a group of single young women competed for the affections of a good-looking construction worker and onetime model posing as the heir to a fortune.
Combined with the January 2003 return of summer talent show hit “American Idol,” “Joe Millionaire” helped transform Fox’s ratings fortunes from dismal to dazzling in the second half of last season. Fox ended the February and May 2003 “sweeps” as the top-rated network in the demographic of viewers aged 18 to 49 coveted most by advertisers.
But the triumph was short-lived. Despite a strong showing for its telecasts of the major league baseball playoffs and the success its steamy new drama “The O.C.,” Fox found itself faltering again at the outset of the current season.
“American Juniors,” a kiddie edition of “American Idol,” flopped over the summer. A new porn-themed drama of forbidden romance, “Skin,” and a new sitcom, “Luis,” were both yanked due to low ratings.
But one of Fox’s biggest setbacks was the fall return of ”Joe Millionaire,” which floundered in its second incarnation.
Now Fox is banking on “Fiance” and a third grown-up edition of “American Idol,” which premieres the same night, to kick-start its prime-time lineup.
Their success is especially important to Berman, who as entertainment president for Fox Broadcasting Co., becomes the network’s top executive with the recently announced departure of Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow.