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Review: 'Secret Millionaire'

December 4, 2008 |  9:22 am

Secretmillionaire I am of at least two minds about "Secret Millionaire," a new reality show from Fox -- based, like so many reality series, on a foreign model -- in which the very rich go incognito among the very poor for six days to learn or remind themselves what it's like to live on a pittance. At the end of each episode, the millionaire will give at least $100,000 of his or her own money to a deserving person or persons met over the course of the week -- part of the show is about finding them. With the economy going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, it seems the right time to explore the real and psychic space between the haves and the have-nots.

Although there may be some (other) millionaires in the audience, whose hard hearts "Secret Millionaire" will met and whose purse strings it may loosen, the greater audience for this is the ordinary rest of us, who at least might have had trouble paying a bill sometime. Although the participating tycoons attest to the life-changing aspect of the experience, it is, as entertainment, more about the big giveaway than the still-revolutionary notion of giving away one's goods. (Instead of just learning to, you know, appreciate them more.) Its forebears are "Queen for a Day" and "Extreme Home Makeover" with their narratives of suffering rewarded.

It's also a little like those old tales in which a king goes disguised among his subjects to reward the deserving good. And I couldn't help thinking of "Sullivan's Travels," the Preston Sturges comedy about a Hollywood filmmaker disguising himself as a tramp to learn about poverty -- especially a scene in which Sullivan's butler, who knows whereof he speaks, warns him off: "The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous," and they "rather resent the invasion of their privacy, I believe quite properly, sir."

Does "Secret Millionaire" exploit the poor? I don't imagine that this is what the producers mean to do -- I am pretty sure they mean to make some people happy, and some people into better people. I don't know whether you can rightly call it exploitation to give a person $50,000, and presumably the people whose distress is nationally displayed here have agreed to the displaying. But most reality TV lives off of emotion, like some life-sucking "Star Trek" alien: Exploitation is its stock in trade, tears are the signal of its success.

I certainly don't mean to question the sincerity of the participants, either the witting millionaires or the unwitting subjects of their largess. (And in each of the two episodes that aired Wednesday night, the participants gave more than they were contractually obligated to.) In the first, Gregory Ruzicka, a Newport Beach lawyer who makes hay from home foreclosures, is landed in a depressed beach town with his young-adult son, given $150 -- welfare wages -- and let loose to survive. They do some manual labor, meet a woman who takes in the homeless and a little girl suffering from cancer; they feel for them, and bond with one another. In the second, Todd and Gwen Graves, whose money comes from a Baton Rouge-based chicken-finger fast-food franchise, move into a trailer and travel out to see what Katrina hath wrought (and is still not righted).

With the millionaires writing checks on their personal accounts, I can't help but wonder how much Fox is going to make on this thing, and where that money will go.

-- Robert Lloyd

Pictured: Millionaire Molly Shattuck

(Photo courtesy Fox)