FOX is set to prove yet again that just about everything on TV is rebootable, with the return of the much-maligned early-aughts reality sensation Joe Millionaire. Premiering tonight, the new dating competition Joe Millionaire: For Richer or For Poorer will task a cast of bachelorettes to choose between two eligible men: one who's a millionaire and one who isn't, but the women don't know which is which.
If this sounds like a tawdry premise, you're likely too young to remember the original Joe Millionaire or the era of reality TV that birthed it. Shortly after Survivor taught networks that they could get big ratings cheaply by programming reality shows, television became a kind of experimental theater for what kinds of reality premises networks could get away with. Talent shows like American Idol? Absolutely. Tests of resolve and willingness to eat disgusting parts of animals like Fear Factor? Definitely. One of the most fertile grounds for reality in this time was the tried and true battleground of love. The Bachelor premiered on ABC in 2002 and reignited the dating-show genre with it, opening the door for all kinds of different kooky, often distasteful ways in which eligible people could get matched up on TV. In January of 2003, FOX introduced their latest entrant into this particular fray: Joe Millionaire.
So what was it about this show that, nearly 20 years later, gives it enough cultural cachet to get rebooted in the era of Love Island and Too Hot to Handle?
The premise, as sold by the show, was that they found this regular shlub making $19,000 a year as a construction worker and polished him up to pretend he'd just inherited a $50 million family fortune. From there, 20 single women would compete Bachelor-style for what would end up being a proposal of marriage, upon which time the ruse of his true net worth would be revealed. Just that synopsis alone speaks volumes about the way reality TV was operating at the time. In the world of Joe Millionaire, money is what's supposed to get these women all hot and bothered for the guy, Evan Marriott, an attractive slab of Wonder bread in regular circumstances but clearly only trotted out on the show like a prize because of his fraudulent net worth. At the same time, the women are being set up to be demonized as gold-diggers if it turns out that they're more interested in the money than the man.
As exhibited on The Bachelor and countless other dating shows, the idea of Joe Millionaire is to be competing for the "right" reasons (i.e. love, not money) -- nevermind the fact that the money being is only reason anyone is even here, including the audience. The women are supposed to be attracted to Evan the person, and when the ruse is ultimately revealed, the virtuous ones will choose Evan for his qualities as a person. Qualities like his … honesty. Which will ultimately be revealed to be as bankrupt as his checking account. You can see the conundrum here, but audiences in 2003 gleefully tossed any such complicated thoughts aside.
The ratings success of Joe Millionaire soon became as big a story as what was happening on the show itself. The show was a mid-season blockbuster for FOX that lined up quite nicely alongside their other reality smash that year: American Idol. The winter/spring season of early 2003 saw FOX roll out Joe Millionaire on Monday nights, the second season of American Idol on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and reruns of Joe Millionaire on Thursday nights. The season finale brought in 34.6 million viewers, making it the highest rated series episode in FOX history.
FOX in particular was the network that tended to court the most controversy with its reality shows. The February 2000 broadcast of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? was blasted by critics for being crass and sexist, while reaping multiple controversies for everything from its titular multi-millionaire's sketchy past (which included a restraining order for domestic violence), as well as doubts that he even was the multi-millionaire that FOX claimed him to be. Shows like Temptation Island and Paradise Hotel were called classless and trashy even (or especially) when they succeeded.
This all came under the umbrella of FOX programming executive Mike Darnell, whose fondness for cheap and attention-grabbing reality TV scored some big successes (American Idol was on his watch, as was So You Think You Can Dance and Hell's Kitchen) as well as some high profile failures. Trash seemed to be Darnell's specialty, from alien autopsies to big, fat, obnoxious fiancees, but he had a uncanny talent for grabbing the public by its attention span with his inanely-premised shows — need we remind you of the Paris Hilton/Nicole Richie series The Simple Life?
Joe Millionaire wasn't a ratings smash because it was a great show. It was a ratings smash because it was a premise that appealed to viewers' basest instincts and passions about things like wealth, attraction, and gold-digging women. When people talk about how reality TV being lowest-common-denominator trash, Joe Millionaire is what they're talking about.
We were a lot easier to scandalize in early 2003, one year before Nipplegate. This was an era where Survivor had to deal with weeks of bad press because its contestants cooked and ate a rat. Joe Millionaire had two scandals, one more quaint than the other. The first was that once the show became a hit, the press was rather easily able to suss out that Evan Marriott wasn't exactly the blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth construction worker that the show played him as. He was, in fact, an aspiring actor and (at least a one-time) underwear model. This was before we had all accepted the fact that 90% of all reality TV contestants were wannabe actors and part-time models.
There was another modeling "controversy" for contestant Sarah, who was found to have modeled for photos on bondage/fetish web sites, which gets a bit less light-hearted than the Marriott revelations because of how much worse women who pose for sexy photos are treated in the court of public opinion than men are. Sarah had already been set up as the villain of the season, so she wasn't granted a whole lot of sympathy. Part of that edit is what leads us to the big controversy of the first season, a scene where Evan and Sarah took a walk out into the woods, where the show implied (via audio and subtitles — including a notorious caption that read "slurp") that they engaged in oral sex. It was later revealed that the captions were made up and the audio was imported from a different, unrelated, unsexy scene, instantly making Joe Millionaire — the show with dishonesty as its central premise — one of the more notoriously dishonest productions of the early reality TV era.
After the blockbuster ratings of the first-season finale — which outpaced that year's Oscars — FOX naturally went in for a second season, this one titled The Next Joe Millionaire. The problem, of course, was how to cast this show where the most essential element was that the contestants would have no idea that they were being lied to, after the show was seen by 40 million people. It's tough to find 20 hot, camera-ready women from a population of people without television sets, newspaper access, or friends. The solution was to cast the single women entirely from Europe, where ideally they'd been outside the sphere of influence of the American TV hype machine.
Through no fault of these European women, The Next Joe Millionaire flopped hard, with the show losing nearly three quarters of its Season 1 audience. While lightning rarely strikes twice on cultural phenomenons like this, one could also chalk up the failure of Joe Millionaire 2 to the fact that the first season failed to deliver on the hype. After all, people remember the fact of the TV show Joe Millionaire far better than they remember anything that actually happened on it. The season 1 finale had no Sue Hawk "snakes and rats" speech. It featured no memorable contestants, nor did the ultimate reveal that Evan was more pauper than prince result in a particularly compelling TV moment. Joe 1 was already a fizzle, no wonder Joe 2 was a dud. There would be no third season (until now).
All of which is to say that Joe Millionaire: For Richer or For Poorer has nearly 20 years of reality TV history at its back … but also 20 years of reality TV disappointment to live down. Good luck, Joes!
Joe Millionaire: For Richer or For Poorer premieres on FOX January 6th at 8:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.