'I Wanna Marry Harry,' 'Joe Millionaire,' and the (d)evolution of gimmick reality

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Image Credit: Chris Raphael/Fox

Even 11 years later, network TV has never aired anything else quite like Joe Millionaire, Fox’s groundbreakingly cruel, incredibly popular Reality 1.0 experiment. The basic premise, as if you could ever forget: 20 money-hungry airheads arrive at a gorgeous French chateau to compete for the affections of Evan Marriott, a man who has just inherited more than $50 million. They have no idea that Evan’s money is as fake as their eyelashes – he’s actually a blue-collar construction worker.

Joe piled artifice on top of artifice: Its breakout character was Marriott’s “butler,” played by professional actor Paul Hogan. The Smoking Gun eventually discovered that Marriott wasn’t just an average working stiff — he had also once posed as an underwear model. The series’ most famous sequence, which finds Marriott and eventual second-place finisher Sarah Kozer stealing away for an intimate outdoor encounter — helpfully captioned with a series of “uhm”s and “slurp”s — never actually happened: “The audio that we hear, with slurps and sighs, came from Sarah getting a back massage some hours earlier from her friend Melissa,” a talking head explained in a VH1 special that aired in 2004.

But to an audience not yet burned out on dating series — back then, there was really only Temptation Island, syndicated cousins Blind Date and The 5th Wheel, and The Bachelor, which premiered one year before Joe hit Fox — none of this mattered. Even if everything about the show made a mockery of the term “reality,” viewers ate up Joe with a silver spoon. Depending on who you believe, either 35 million or 46 million of them tuned in to watch Marriott split a $1 million prize with winner Zora Andrich.

Why? Because although we knew that everything about Joe was phony to the core, the girls vying for Marriott’s hand didn’t. (Or at least, they didn’t while the cameras were still rolling.) As a genre, reality was still in its infancy: Survivor had premiered only three summers earlier. Just two programs, American High and The Osbournes, had ever won Emmys in the recently created “Outstanding Reality Program” category. “I’m not here to make friends” had become neither catchphrase nor cliché. Simply put, it was a more innocent time — one where wannabe TV stars weren’t yet savvy enough to know how to play the game (getting famous) within the game (any reality competition’s actual premise).

Unfortunately, like most tricks, Joe Millionaire only worked once. Fox ordered a second season, casting only European women who had never heard of the first Joe; their efforts failed, and The Next Joe Millionaire died a slow, painful death.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that as much as it pains me to admit this, I Wanna Marry “Harry” — the Joe Millionaire clone Fox just premiered — just doesn’t work.

To anyone interested in a) British royalty, b) trashy TV, and c) schadenfreude, Harry sounds like a slam dunk. Like Joe, the show revolves around a group of ladies trying to win over a con artist. (This time, the man in question is Matthew Hicks, an average British bloke who kinda-sorta-maybe bears a resemblance to Prince Henry Charles Albert David of Wales, if you squint.) Like Joe, it pairs its star with an actor playing a butler. (He tells the ladies his name is Kingsley. In reality, he’s named Paul Leonard — and if he’s the same Paul Leonard listed here on IMDb, he’s also appeared in Les Mis and Sherlock.) Like Joe, it’s set in a gorgeous, gargantuan country estate, where the ladies are free to frolic and drink and passive-aggressively insult each other all the livelong day.

The difference? “Harry” takes place in a universe where Joe Millionaire also exists — and from the get-go, it’s clear that this group of women is a lot more shrewd than Zora and Sarah were. For reasons unsaid (liability must have something to do with it), the show never actually comes out and declares that Hicks is Harry; there’s some excited conversation among the gals when one notices that he kinda-sorta-maybe looks like Prince William’s brother, but nobody appears all that convinced. (As one confesses in episode 2, the morning after the premiere’s big masquerade ball: “Today, I just don’t see how they’d let a bunch of crazy American girls around Prince Harry. I mean, I wouldn’t. That should be a law.”) Those who do pay lip service to the idea that they’re being wooed by a prince simply seem to be playing along because they know they’ll get more screen time if they do. This isn’t a show about a British dude tricking 12 dumb American women; it’s a show about 12 American women pretending to be dumb so they can get on TV.

Theoretically, this could make “Harry” even more fascinating — on one level, it’s a meta-commentary on reality TV itself. But practically, it just makes “Harry” a run-of-the-mill dating show with a few extra bells and whistles. (The fake Secret Service agents who keep whisking Hicks away are a nice touch.) That’s all well and good if you’re not hoping for something as ridiculous and surprising as Joe was, once upon a time — but if you are, you’ll come away from “Harry” feeling let down. It’s sort of like season 2 of Jersey Shore: the show only works if these people don’t know they’re being ridiculous. Once everyone’s aware of the metaphorical man behind the curtain, a trainwreck waiting to happen becomes something more calculated — and inherently less interesting. Well, at least until “Harry” and a lady head out into the night for some subtitled hanky-panky.

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