(RNS) Clerics and critics don't typically turn to Fox television forprogramming that would qualify as either ethical or ethereal.

It is, after all, the network that brought the nation "Who Wants toMarry a Millionaire?" and "Temptation Island."

But one of its latest ratings-grabbers, "Joe Millionaire," may provideviewers with an unexpected lesson in integrity.

"The concept of `Joe Millionaire' is more like a fable, like Aesop'sFables where things are twisted," said Matthew Felling, media director forthe Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs. "It's almost amorality play. It's almost a cautionary tale. In a perverse sense, Fox ishelping us with a very moral lesson." The premise of the program is this: Evan Marriott, 28, is a lowly --albeit hunky -- construction worker who makes $19,000 a year. But 20 youngwomen are informed otherwise; they believe Marriott has recently inherited$50 million and wishes to pursue one of them romantically. During each ofthe show's seven episodes, Marriott dismisses women until he has chosen "TheOne." In next week's much-hyped two-hour finale, Marriott must choose betweenSarah and Zora and reveal the truth about his finances. In the course of the series, Marriott has fielded questions from thewomen eager to know about his dough. Marriott, who said he's trying to determine which women are interestedin him and not his supposedly bulging bank account, dislikes thediscussions.
"I am living the biggest lie in front of America and the more I thinkabout it, the more it eats my brain out," he told viewers in a recentepisode. He's not the only one claiming to be bothered by the fabrication. Rob Couch, minister of outreach at Christ United Methodist Church inMobile, Ala., said he's talked to a number of "Millionaire" viewers who are"intrigued by it and at the same time disgusted by the premise." Still, as disturbed as some might be by the $50 million fib, viewerskeep watching in numbers 20 million strong. Couch said he thinks many viewers want to see how the show's characterswill respond when the truth is revealed. "When a relationship is based on a lie, then it just can't work," hesaid. "I've kind of wondered, `How could love win out in the end?' I don'tthink there could be true love when there's not true vulnerability in that." While the network claims that at the series' end viewers will see achoice between love and money, Couch said he thinks people will discoverwhether one of the women could forgive Marriott for lying to her. To many viewers, however, the women -- almost invariably depicted asmoney-grubbing -- deserve to be deceived. Some of the women try not to seem too interested in the cash, butviewers get a different impression.

For example, speaking directly to cameras, Melissa M. has made commentslike, "Money matters" and "Would I want to live comfortably? Yes."

Then, during a dinner date, Melissa M. told Marriott: "If I had money togive and time, I'd want to go to a Third World country and bathe theirchildren and give shots and do things like that. But that's me. I'm amercenary kind of person, you know?" The malapropism wasn't lost on viewers. The programs provide an ego boost to some viewers, Felling said. After a tough day at work, viewers can come home and "feel better thanthe pathetic souls who would indulge in such a flight of fantasy and aduplicitous game of stratagem." Couch agreed, noting many of the female viewers he knows "feel a moralsuperiority to the people on the show." Indeed, Couch said most of thepeople he knows say they would never participate in such a charade. Marriott claims deceit is difficult for him, too. "I'm really misleading," he said on a recent show. "I'm $50 millionworth of misleading." Kathleen S. Lowney, author of "Baring Our Souls: TV Talk Shows and theReligion of Recovery," said she finds it interesting that so many of thepopular reality shows include self-reflective voice-overs in whichcharacters offer commentary that's contradictory to the rest of the series.In the case of "Joe Millionaire," for example, Marriott periodically sayshow difficult it is for him to lie, yet he continues to participate in theseries. While the "Millionaire" characters may provoke discussion about moralityamong viewers, they don't address the subject much themselves. That task isat least partly undertaken by Paul Hogan, who not only plays a butler on TV,but is one in real life. Hogan introduces the program in a setting reminiscent of Alistair Cookeon PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre." Then, throughout the show, Hogan offersrunning commentary about Marriott's portrayal of a millionaire, as well asthe behavior of some of the women. He also serves as Marriott's soundingboard during debates as to who should stay and who should leave.

"I find that on the show the butler is sort of the moral chorus, theGreek chorus -- `Choose carefully," Lowney said. "There is a morality onthese shows ... but it's hidden."

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