Fox TV’s Volpone In a Hard Hat: Joe Millionaire

A few years back, we liked ourselves a lot. The market was great and America did good things in the world. Our President’s charm worked in Paris, Nairobi and Westchester. An editor friend of mine said, only half-lamentingly, “There’s nothing but good news on the front page.”

All that’s over. The rest of the world hates us, apparently for good reasons. The President is slow, earnest and dangerous. The markets are bitter. The one hero at the State of the Union message was a Ugandan.

And Joe Millionaire is a big hit. That’s the only way to explain the success of the Fox series, which concludes Feb. 10: The country is gripped by misanthropy.

“Joe Millionaire” is (of course) a hunky heavy-equipment operator named Evan Marriott who, conveyed by Fox to a French “chateau,” tells 20 young American women whom the network has gathered that he came into $50 million a couple of years back. In case there’s any question about his corruption, Mr. Marriott appears to use the lie to try and get women into bed. The women are just as creepy. As they compete to be the last one standing, they call one another “prostitute” behind the others’ backs and, most embarrassingly, convince themselves tearfully that Joe is a really great guy.

On paper this sounds halfway cute, but in execution it’s been wholly dispiriting. The only point of this piece of “reality television” is that people are grubbing and awful. Fox has taken the most intimate and precious moments of existence-two people forming an emotional relationship-and exposed them as a shabby fraud.

The production values are grimy. The women who make the cut each week are given low-class jewelry, and are wowed by it. The hot tub at the French chateau is cheap, the kitchen is cramped, the women’s wing is as jammed as a hen house. The dresses are schlocky. Only the horses seem happy.

This show never doesn’t rub it in. The producers air the contestants’ most embarrassing flubs, like when they mess up French pretentiously or fall out of their dresses or don’t let Mr. Marriott get a word in edgewise in their desire to make an impression.

When Joe and Sarah hooked up in the forest outside the chateau one night, Fox managed to get a sound mike in the trees, and lest there was any mystery left about their interlude, gave us subtitles like “Slurp.”

There was one ray of light a few episodes back: Alison, a redhead with a fine ingenuousness about her, became turned off when Mr. Marriott picked disdainfully at his foie gras during a boat trip on the Seine. Alison was sensitive and transparent, in periwinkle and red, and Mr. Marriott sensed her contempt for him and promptly eliminated her from the running.

But he apologized to her as he did so, and seemed to signal his availability down the road.

With somewhat cloddish body language, Mr. Marriott appeared to say to her, “Alison, you’re too good for this. I am saving you from a truly tawdry experience that, if you actually went through with it, would only make you hate me. Far better that we meet on different terms.” So, for a brief moment, the media slaves seemed to have gotten on the underground railroad that would take them away from Foxland. But then Alison was gone, and the grind continued.

It’s probably true that more affluent people wouldn’t have sat still for Fox’s manipulations, would have seen through the fraud and rebelled, subverted the show’s premise. Fox went down the class ladder to find compliant victims. Joe Millionaire made $19,000 last year, he claims, and he’s not all that smart.

The women chosen for impaling have been largely unsophisticated, in a pathetic junior-college sort of way. An assistant to a mortgage broker. A substitute teacher (at 29). A customer-service representative, whatever that means. And a loan officer, again somewhat vaguely. The sharpest women among the contestants were whittled away long before the slurping began. As for Sarah, the tabloids have lately revealed that she made fetish films under a different name after graduating from George Mason University. For once, Fox had nothing to say.

It’s not as if the rich are doing any better. They too are trapped and unhappy, and making wretched choices. This was the misanthropic message of Bridezillas , a documentary in which Fox seemed to have flattered and gulled a number of well-off New York women who were planning giant weddings to the point where they made the mistake of allowing cameramen to follow them around in the weeks before the nuptials. They were revealed as crabby and demanding and tearful, lo in the days before their weddings.

Other reality shows will soon go further. ABC recently announced that it’s planning to showcase a member of a well-known aristocratic American family pursuing a mate in a televised contest. And Fox promises to compel two people chosen by the audience to marry one another.

Evan Marriott doesn’t have to marry the last girl-he merely has to confess to her. Really, there’s nothing for anyone to win on Joe Millionaire but a bag of clay.

For a minute or two, that bleak prospect gave Mr. Marriott a little sympathy. He acted as if the show’s premises were nauseating, that he was actually only looking for a woman of rugged spirit to share his humble home. He was trapped, but trying to make the most of a bad situation. In an effort to make its leading man seem soulful, Fox repeatedly aired Mr. Marriott’s statement that the lie was eating him alive.

But as time went on, he threw himself into it, and in the interviews he’s given, Mr. Marriott showed himself to be well past the agonized schtick. Fox was not wholly forthcoming about the terms of the lie when he signed on, he says. (No, the devil is never very good at fine print.) But everyone had a good time, both him and the girls, and the ones who are sore shouldn’t be. There were “absolutely” no negatives to the experiment, he told TV Guide . “Fox is happy, I’m happy, and to tell you the truth, the girls ought to be happy.”

A friend saw Evan Marriott lately at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Fox has him tucked away in Los Angeles and is covering his bills as he makes his transition from life on a bulldozer to celebrity.

Misanthropes say we all can be bought, and right now they have the documentation. You are trapped in life; there are no good choices. Evidently, this is a useful feeling. Believe the worst about human nature, and you will let yourself do anything.

Fox TV’s Volpone In a Hard Hat: Joe Millionaire