Here's the title of a new reality mating show I'm thinking of pitching the networks: "Bachelorettes in Alaska Who Want to Marry a Multimillionaire Do Anything for Love as They Race to the Altar." Catchy, huh? As the name subtly suggests, the program I have in mind combines crowd-pleasing elements from the past few seasons' most popular hook-up shows.
First of all, greed. Remember how shocked everybody was when Fox came up with "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" back in 2000? Darva Conger and Rick Rockwell became instant national laughingstocks and the network was derided for its crassness. Then, to universal astonishment, the show spawned a legion of imitators. Next to many on the air today, the original looks positively quaint.
Poor, maligned, misunderstood Darva would have been happy to get her hands on a measly million after all. The bevy of love-seeking beauties competing on Fox's latest unveiling, "The Next Joe Millionaire," have their eyes on an $80-million prize. That's what they understand to be the net worth of the contest's big catch, a 24-year-old Texan named David Smith.
Which brings us to key ingredient number two: deceit. The TV mating ritual trend started out harmlessly enough, but lately producers have developed something of a cruel streak. The original "Joe Millionaire" duped female applicants into believing Evan Marriott was a millionaire when he was, in fact, a construction worker making less than 20 grand a year. This year's model elevates the deception to the level of international incident. Staff lied to lots of European women who had never seen the show and selected 14 of them to vie for Smith's affections. Think America is unpopular in Europe now? Wait till these babes find out he's really a rodeo rider who in a good year pulls in 11 thou.
I've already figured out how to top that, though. My bachelor is going to be secretly gay and come out of the closet in the final two-hour episode. How's that for a reveal?
Of course, no mating show would be complete without the element of humiliation. Until programs like "Anything For Love," "The Bachelor," "For Love or Money," "Race to the Altar" and "Cupid" began clogging the airwaves, I never would have believed so many people out there were so starved for rejection. Most of these shows feature entire herds of glamorous babes or chiseled hunks hoping to be chosen. And for every contestant who makes the cut, you have to figure hundreds of others have been sent home to look for love without the help of coast-to-coast exposure or casting directors.
In many ways these programs have more in common with "Big Brother" than "Blind Date." Viewers get to know players over an extended period of time and pick their favorites based on observations of behavior both during show ceremonies and behind the scenes in a variety of mundane settings. Invariably, editors shape some contestants into sympathetic characters and others into less likable types; part of the fun is savoring the devastation when a competitor who's come off badly is cut loose. The producers of "The Bachelor" have made this brand of voyeurism into an art form, frequently trailing inconsolable losers into waiting limos and taping their convulsive breakdowns.
I think I've come up with something that fans of this sort of thing will enjoy even more: extreme elimination. Instead of handing out roses to the lucky ones who get to remain and leaving heartbroken losers empty-handed, how about wrestling for who gets to stay? Thongs at 30 paces! I smell ratings.
I raise this possibility in light of my observation that producers of these shows are constantly trying to outdo each other when it comes to pushing the envelope on sex. In the beginning, mating shows were relatively chaste affairs -- except for the night Rockwell proposed to Conger and then celebrated her acceptance by rotorootering his tongue halfway down her esophagus. With the passage of time and the increasingly intense competition between broadcast outlets, however, the producers have left less and less of the mating process to the viewer's imagination.
"Temptation Island" may have lowered the bar initially, but virtually every series now enthusiastically limbos under it. Once upon a time, it was enough to linger on the spectacle of scantily clad contestants getting to know one another in a hot tub. Today, smack in the middle of prime time, it's not unusual to find yourself watching two or more consenting adults share a bottle of wine and a bit of pillow talk. A recent episode of "The Bachelor" included a mattress meet-and-greet between Mr. Right and a trio of affectionate hopefuls wearing nothing but barely-there negligees. Where can these programs possibly go from here? I mean, besides Cinemax?
It's sort of interesting that we've abandoned the national debate about canoodling for cash on TV. Just three years ago there was an outcry of indignation at the thought of marriage being treated as a game-show prize and women lining up to play. These days, players on shows such as "Paradise Hotel" sign on with the understanding that they're required to hook up with total strangers or get the boot, and I don't hear a peep of protest or concern, either in the media or from the so-called moral majority.
Apparently, if television shows us something often enough, what it shows us becomes routine, an accepted part of life. That might not sound like anything special, but in fact it's the medium's most significant, and most worrisome, impact.
I'm still playing around with some of the other concepts for my show. Lie detectors have been a big hit on programs like "Meet My Folks" and "Who Wants to Marry My Dad?" so we'll need something along that line, but with a new twist. I'm thinking torture. Nothing too serious, of course. Maybe a lie detector that's hooked up to an electrical generator and shoots a few hundred volts into players when they tell a fib. Wait, I know: The more lies they tell, the higher we crank the juice. Sort of "Married By America" meets The Green Mile!
I think we've got a hit. Female wrestling, people getting borderline electrocuted, greedy babes competing for a guy who turns out to be gay -- how can it fail? As long as none of the staff are hooked up to that thing when they tell contestants about first prize.