(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 One." 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
discussions. "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 episode. 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 series. 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."

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