I admit it; I got sucked in. I’ve not just watched every moment of the first two episodes of Joe Millionaire, but I hooked my kids as well. This happened despite our no-TV-during-the-week rule and my refusal to watch even one minute of any previous reality show. I love a good con, and the premise of a construction worker wooing twenty women who think a millionaire is romancing them was too much to resist.
The first two episodes had pretty girls, opulent wealth, hilarious twists, and scenes of gold-diggers getting what they deserved. The second episode ended with Heidi, driven to win at all costs from the start, sitting dejectedly on the ground, waiting for a car to take her away while the butler looked for her lost luggage.
My only problem was Evan’s earnestness. Rather than joining us in the joke, he keeps telling the camera that he’s looking for a woman “who will like me for me.” Pretending to be someone else is a pretty strange way to find such a woman. Four of the five women — Red, Substitute, Smiley, Another Blonde — seem like nice women who will love Evan no matter how much money he has. Only Snaggletooth, my favorite, looks like a schemer.
That was when it occurred to me: The victims (a/k/a, “the marks”) aren’t the women. Although Evan seems a little loopy, he’s not a mark, either. Both are in on the con. We are the only ones accepting this story at face value. We are the marks.
Joe Millionaire shows us some big-con elements, like a staged castle with a butler, stables, and Rolls-Royce limousine. Each episode also provides the women with a “convincer,” an expensive-looking piece of jewelry when they are chosen to continue.
But Evan can’t be conning the women. “Con” is short for “confidence.” The common, and probably most important, element in confidence games is gaining the confidence of the mark. In classical con games, this is done by a diversion, usually getting the mark involved in a legitimate business deal that, for some reason, is never concluded. While waiting out some delay, the roper would introduce the mark to the insideman, usually just letting the mark hear about the scheme. The mark, focused on the delayed business deal and not even asked yet to participate, would not be looking for a rat.
If Evan and Fox were really attempting to convince all these women, they could never succeed without some massive diversion. Some of these women, according to the script, are teachers, doctors, and bankers. How could not one of the twenty be skeptical? Everything looks too pat for them to accept at face value. The butler looks like he was chosen from Central Casting. (I bet he was.) Why would a person actually worth $50 million participate in this kind of show, or live in a castle, or have trouble meeting these kinds of women, or have the women picked up in a horse-drawn carriage with costumed drivers? It looks way more like an Aaron Spelling version of a rich guy than an actual rich guy.
Evan would be too easily exposed in even superficial conversation with the women. What if they asked him a bunch of questions about France (where he supposedly lives), or about philanthropy, or about his rich-guy interests? A crash course couldn’t prepare him to be in close contact with so many people who might know a thing or two. An experienced equestrian would have exposed him, or someone who traveled abroad. If there were really bankers in the group, it wouldn’t take long for a conversation on some financial matter to expose a real construction worker with no money from a person really worth $50 million.
It all makes sense if we are the marks. We are just bystanders here, thinking we are watching someone else’s humiliation. From the outset, for example, “Heidi” was established as a stop-at-nothing schemer. Watching her get dumped in the second episode, then mope around waiting for the car to take her away while they looked for her missing luggage, was sweet indeed.
That was the convincer for the audience. By giving us what we wanted — the premise is connected so strongly to watching attractive women get duped by their greed that Fox could never get away with this show if it was for real — we’re taking our eyes off the ball, not asking the obvious questions, noticing what is clearly not there.
In real confidence games, you have to figure out very carefully how to blow off the mark. Because the scheme is illegal (like betting on a fixed horserace), some marks won’t complain because they would be admitting participation in an illegal venture. Other marks don’t want to publicize that they were so stupid. But to protect themselves against the possibility of reprisal, con men develop elaborate means of ending the game. In The Sting, the roper pretended to shoot the insideman in front of the mark, as phony FBI agents raided the illegal bookie joint. The mark fled, thinking he would be implicated in the murder and a target of the FBI if he stayed to try to get his money back.
Why is it that this was taped and finished last year that none of the women have complained? I never watched Survivor, but didn’t the losers always complain, even threatening to expose the surprise ending? Signing a release wouldn’t shut up a real-life Heidi once she figured out she’d been duped. Not only would such a release not be binding, having been obtained fraudulently, but Fox would never risk losing a multimillion dollar investment when its recourse would be to sue a massage therapist or substitute teacher.
The only element of the con (on the TV audience) that I can’t figure out is how Fox blows us off. Of course, the series is over, so it doesn’t have to worry about us refusing to watch. It’s not like we can have some legal claim on the network either. But if you found out the entire thing was staged, would you ever watch one of these shows again, assuming you had any interest in the past? The only explanation I can come up with is that Fox has decided to kill off the genre, and staging this elaborate hoax — not on the women we are watching but on the audience — is the best way to do it.
It’s a laudable goal, but I won’t stop watching until the bitter end.