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Surprisingly boring

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 7, 2003


Before the opening credits rolled, I knew I was going to hate Fox-TV's latest, twisted reality TV vision, Joe Millionaire.

One look at the premise -- a construction worker worth $19,000-per-year picks a mate from a field of 20 women, aided by a network that tells the women he's really worth $50-million -- guaranteed that. It's everything critics love to hate about so-called reality TV: equal parts manipulation, lies, humiliation and exploitation.

So imagine my surprise Monday night, after watching the first hourlong episode of Millionaire, when I discovered that I hate this show for a wholly different reason.

It's sooo boring.

How can the network that gave us American Idol, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire and Married . . . With Children drop the ball this badly? Handed a delicious concept sure to draw boatloads of attention and criticism, Fox gave us a firecracker with no pop, a soda with no fizz.

A seven-episode reality TV show with no, um, pizazz.

I mostly blame this show's "bachelor," hunky ditch digger Evan Marriott. Despite attempts to paint him as an average Joe, his male-model good looks and studly physique belie the description (indeed he admits to some modeling experience and a past bit part on Days of Our Lives).

But Marriott, 28, is dumb as a box o' rocks. Flummoxed by the simplest questions -- including one from a woman who simply asked his middle name -- he came off like a real-life version of Seinfeld's David Puddy; hopelessly handsome and just hopeless everywhere else.

Even his hidden background disgrace -- every reality TV show contestant has one -- is boring. He was once fined for speeding through a toll plaza without paying.

"I've never seen so many glasses on a table in my life," marveled Marriott -- who was introduced to the girls as Evan Wallace for some reason -- while Aussie butler Paul Hogan tried in vain to teach him what wine goes with fish or fowl.

Monday's episode featured the 20 women entering a sprawling estate in France, introduced to Mariott (who trots in on a horse he's just learned how to ride), and gussied up for a big ball dance where they'll meet the hunk and try to impress him.

The big conflict here: there are 20 girls and 20 dresses provided. Who gets the lame one?

Of course the brassy, aggressive ladies -- producers are already casting 24-year-old blonde banking officer Heidi as the trademark reality TV jerk -- grab two dresses at a time to consider, eventually leaving laid-back 29-year-old substitute teacher Zora (a dead ringer for Sex and the City's Kristin Davis) stuck with the leftovers.

In the end Marriott hands pearl necklaces to 12 of the ladies who will move on in the competition (unlike The Bachelor's sappy roses). Film clips from future episodes promise scenes of physical labor and handholding.

"As I rode off, I realized I had just started the biggest lie of my life," lamented Marriott, sounding way too much like a character from a Jacqueline Susann novel. This guy is living the ultimate working class guy's fantasy and all he can do is grouse about having to lie?

Yawn.

Former Trading Spaces host Alex McLeod is the ostensible host of this disappointment, though she made only two brief appearances in Monday's show. Hogan, looking relieved that he doesn't have a client who actually knows anything about wealth, made a far better impression as a Masterpiece Theater-style narrator guiding Mariott and the ladies through it all.

The way I figure it, Fox just played it too safe. Rather than cut loose with a no-holds-barred satire of dating shows such as ABC's rival The Bachelor (the female-picks-from-25-guys version begins at 9 p.m. Wednesday), Joe Millionaire pokes gentle fun at the participants, while maintaining the same faux-romance vibe that makes most TV dating shows so odious.

Much as this critic hates to admit it, Fox-style reality TV works best when it's being bad. Here's hoping future episodes give me something I'll really love to hate.

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