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Jewish World Review Feb. 23, 2000 /17 Adar 1, 5760

John Leo

John Leo
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Consumer Reports



'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane -- FOX-TV HIT YET ANOTHER NEW LOW with "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?", a Miss America-style pageant that ended with the winner marrying her prize -- a rich man she had never met.

Just like at Atlantic City, perky contestants paraded around in swimsuits, answered silly questions, and hugged one another in simulated joy as semi-finalists, finalists and then the lucky winner were announced. The rich guy's friends and relatives, including his mother and sister, posted numerical scores every step of the way, just like at an Olympic diving competition or a best-cow contest at a county fair.

(Implicating the winner's mother-in-law right away was a nice touch.) The only thing missing was the theme music from "Jerry Maguire," with Cuba Gooding Jr. loudly warbling his famous line, "Show me the money." Ah, love.

During most of the program, the rich guy was shown only in shadow and from behind, a mysterious game-show Heathcliff brooding over his bevy of financially alert marital applicants. During the swimsuit competition, contestants were shown with towel-like wraps around their waists, apparently so viewers wouldn't get the idea that some sort of cheesy beauty contest was under way. There was no talent competition, a clear high point of the evening.

Viewers saw brief lists of contestants' likes and dislikes. Listed for one woman, a collector of Garfield dolls: "Likes chocolate pudding, kissing. Dislikes: lima beans, petty people." Another disliked snotty people and seafood. These are the things you need to know when picking someone to marry you for your money.

The most demeaning moment came as the five finalists, dressed in wedding gowns, awaited the rich guy's final selection. Four were doomed to be abandoned at the altar with no way to salvage the moment, except perhaps to pick another stranger out of the studio audience and marry him on the spot. The belated appearance of the rich guy was a downer, too. He wasn't a bad-looking fellow, but alas he wore a demonic grin like some evil Jack Palance character about to dispatch an innocent bystander. There went the fantasy.

Some 31 million people watched all or part of "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" While not Super Bowl numbers, these ratings are high enough to raise the familiar question of whether America is becoming a gigantic insane asylum. (Historians of national dementia will note that novelist Philip Roth first asked this question in an essay published in 1961.)

All 31 million watchers are now forbidden to disapprove, or even frown, when discussing the mass weddings of strangers in the Rev. Moon's Unification Church, the sale of child brides in underdeveloped countries, or the marriages of Hollywood starlets to fabulously wealthy 90-year-old men who have just been diagnosed with fast-spreading incurable diseases.

The show had elements of a game show, a lottery, the Cinderella story and ordinary prostitution. As another successful money-based TV show in the midst of a great economic boom, it points to the possible financialization of all cultural values.

Advertising has begun to reflect this theme. In one TV commercial, a yoga class is asked to imagine a beautiful spot. At first the class conjures up various scenes of great natural beauty. Then one man imagines the beauty of being on the Internet, buying stock, and the whole class converts to his vision. Beauty is making money.

In this culture, maybe it's becoming respectable again to think about marriage as a no-nonsense money deal, too. A show featuring 50 beautiful women who are willing to marry any rich man at all, and on national TV, surely nudges the idea along.

Then, too, the show can be viewed as a conscious or semi-conscious satire on marriage. Many critics are aware of the continuing effort to deconstruct marriage, but these critics rarely look at the role played by the popular culture in this process. Here the mockery is hard to miss. The rich man, having just completed a two-hour audition of the money-hungry, got down on one knee to plead for the hand of the selected fortune-seeker. Unsurprisingly, she accepted. The bride quivered. The groom seemed racked with barely controlled passion. They both burbled grandly about devotion unto death do us part.

This was a bit jarring, since two-thirds of the viewers probably suspected the whole deal was either a hoax or a real two-week marriage that will be ended as soon as the happy couple complete the talk-show circuit and extract whatever financial advantage can be had. By Friday, the rich guy was revealed to be a not-very-successful comedian and motivational speaker who made some money in real estate.

And, reportedly, more.

KFMB-TV in San Diego interviewed an ex-girlfriend of the comedian who says he recently wanted to get back together with her, but she wasn't sure. She said he had talked about agreeing to do the TV show as a way of advancing his career and also discussed having the TV marriage annulled. What? You mean this program may have been cynical and stupid? Consider us stunned.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Send your comments by clicking here.


© 2000, John Leo