(RNS) Clerics and critics don't typically turn to Fox television for
programming that would qualify as either ethical or ethereal.
It is, after all, the network that brought the nation "Who Wants to
Marry a Millionaire?" and "Temptation Island."
But one of its latest ratings-grabbers, "Joe Millionaire," may provide
viewers with an unexpected lesson in integrity.
"The concept of `Joe Millionaire' is more like a fable, like Aesop's
Fables where things are twisted," said Matthew Felling, media director for
the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs. "It's almost a
morality play. It's almost a cautionary tale. In a perverse sense, Fox is
helping 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 young
women are informed otherwise; they believe Marriott has recently inherited
$50 million and wishes to pursue one of them romantically. During each of
the show's seven episodes, Marriott dismisses women until he has chosen "The
In next week's much-hyped two-hour finale, Marriott must choose between
Sarah and Zora and reveal the truth about his finances.
In the course of the series, Marriott has fielded questions from the
women eager to know about his dough.
Marriott, who said he's trying to determine which women are interested
in him and not his supposedly bulging bank account, dislikes the
"I am living the biggest lie in front of America and the more I think
about it, the more it eats my brain out," he told viewers in a recent
He's not the only one claiming to be bothered by the fabrication.
Rob Couch, minister of outreach at Christ United Methodist Church in
Mobile, 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, viewers
keep watching in numbers 20 million strong.
Couch said he thinks many viewers want to see how the show's characters
will respond when the truth is revealed.
"When a relationship is based on a lie, then it just can't work," he
said. "I've kind of wondered, `How could love win out in the end?' I don't
think 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 a
choice between love and money, Couch said he thinks people will discover
whether one of the women could forgive Marriott for lying to her.
To many viewers, however, the women -- almost invariably depicted as
money-grubbing -- deserve to be deceived.
Some of the women try not to seem too interested in the cash, but
viewers get a different impression.
For example, speaking directly to cameras, Melissa M. has made comments
like, "Money matters" and "Would I want to live comfortably? Yes."
Then, during a dinner date, Melissa M. told Marriott: "If I had money to
give and time, I'd want to go to a Third World country and bathe their
children and give shots and do things like that. But that's me. I'm a
mercenary 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 than
the pathetic souls who would indulge in such a flight of fantasy and a
duplicitous game of stratagem."
Couch agreed, noting many of the female viewers he knows "feel a moral
superiority to the people on the show." Indeed, Couch said most of the
people 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 million
worth of misleading."
Kathleen S. Lowney, author of "Baring Our Souls: TV Talk Shows and the
Religion of Recovery," said she finds it interesting that so many of the
popular reality shows include self-reflective voice-overs in which
characters offer commentary that's contradictory to the rest of the series.
In the case of "Joe Millionaire," for example, Marriott periodically says
how difficult it is for him to lie, yet he continues to participate in the
While the "Millionaire" characters may provoke discussion about morality
among viewers, they don't address the subject much themselves. That task is
at 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 Cooke
on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre." Then, throughout the show, Hogan offers
running commentary about Marriott's portrayal of a millionaire, as well as
the behavior of some of the women. He also serves as Marriott's sounding
board 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, the
Greek chorus -- `Choose carefully," Lowney said. "There is a morality on
these shows ... but it's hidden."