By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 9:11 AM
Slowly but surely, Sunday has become television's spiritual revival night for conspicuously contrived - and dubiously meaningful - acts of kindness. It preaches positivity and adoration of the selfless self, which, in the end, is pretty selfish. It's where forlorn families in crisis have their homes Extremely Made Over by an army of well-meaning but also self-aggrandizing volunteers. It's where highly compensated corporate CEOs become Undercover Bosses and surreptitiously exchange their workers' remaining reserves of goodwill for a sunshiny PR opportunity.
In ABC's new Sunday-night reality show called "Secret Millionaire," a rich person from one city travels to another city's slummier side to live in a shabby rental apartment and work for several days alongside volunteers who help the poor and neglected, who would otherwise never be seen on a TV show. I'm down with that.
But once the millionaire gets acquainted with some of the downtrodden masses, he or she then reveals the upper-bracket truth of his or her real identity - surprise! - and doles out $100,000 or so in personal checks to various charities and weepingly ecstatic individuals. It's 501(c)(3) write-offs and Form 1099 headaches all around! Somewhere in the afterworld, Ayn Rand gouges her eyes out with a fountain pen.
"Secret Millionaire" and NBC's "America's Next Great Restaurant" (which also premieres Sunday night) are more alike than they seem. Both shows presume a world made up only of winners and losers in televised America circa 2011. If the losers are lucky, the winners will write them a check or, better, bestow business advice or the uplifting hooey of self-determinism upon them. Is it any coincidence that the wealth gap in our nation has spread outward to form an impassable chasm, or that reality TV thrives on it?
These shows sincerely believe in the mathematical impossibility of giving 110 percent. There is no longer any pleasure derived from an honest workweek or anonymous compassion. Serving a great meal is no accomplishment; you must become the founder and CEO of your own trendy restaurant chain. You must become so successful that people hire you to get their sales staffs motivated by the magic of your words.
Some of us take no pleasure in criticizing such feel-great shows, which try their best to convince us of our own higher purpose, and do indeed manage to enlighten and help everyday people.
Well, okay, we take some small pleasure in shouting "Get over yourself!" at the screen. It doesn't mean we don't volunteer, pray or write checks to charity. It doesn't mean we reject the uplifting rush of capitalism. It just means we're a bit disgusted.
At what, exactly?
At seeing how repeatedly society emphasizes grade-grubbing in the class of life. Everyone on the Sunday-night reality lineup seems to be assembling a list of achievements, volunteer work and gold stars in order to impress that great admissions board in the sky.
In "America's Next Great Restaurant," 11 would-be entrepreneurs compete to convince four investors - a panel including celebrity chef/restaurateur Bobby Flay and Chipotle burrito-chain founder Steve Ells - to buy into their conceptual theme for a new fast-food restaurant that will appeal most broadly to the homogenous national palate.
In other words, the last thing America needs. Will it be a grilled-cheese sandwich chain called Meltworks? Will it be an Indian food chain called The Tiffin Box? Is a chicken-and-waffles concept ready to become the next Subway?
Both "Restaurant" and "Millionaire" stir similar pots of self-pride, entrepreneurship and the psychic reward of sharing one's good fortune. But because the medium is television - reality television - each show collapses under the pressure of showing off its sense of nobility and higher purpose.
Because it is produced by the same makers of "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" (among other hits), "America's Next Great Restaurant" has a sure-footed approach to its challenges-and-elimination format. The winner will see his or her restaurant concept launched simultaneously in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York - timed to open after the show's finale in the spring.
Thus, the emphasis here is much more on selling an idea than cooking the food. (In fact, the contestants each pick out an actual chef to help with the cuisine.) "Next Great Restaurant" continually skirts the question of whether or not the country needs more "fast casual" places to eat (the industry's euphemistic term for mediocre strip-mall nosh), yet no one dares to mention the sad truth about a Chipotle burrito, which, if loaded up with rice, beans, cheese, sour cream and guacamole, can soar past 1,000 calories and 50 grams of fat. Even more baffling is when Chipotle's Ells, who has all the personality of a cardboard tortilla, has the nerve to voice health concerns in the second episode when a pair of contestants present him with a bacon-wrapped weiner they propose for a small-plates "redneck" eatery called Hick's.
And so, somewhat like "The Apprentice," the show is more concerned with its participants' ability to oversell their dreams to investors who are themselves master oversellers of dreams. "America's Next Great Restaurant" asks us to reject the drudgery of work in favor of the magnificence of ownership, with nothing at all in between but a vat of bubbling cheese. Into which so many of us plop.
A heathen isn't prone to reach for the New Testament in his TV reviews, yet because "Secret Millionaire" so happily crosses prime time's unspoken secular boundaries with constant references to God and the powers of faith, I would like the congregation to once again turn to Saint Matthew's Gospel, in which Christ delivers his oft-quoted Sermon on the Mount:
"When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. . . . Do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your alms-giving may be secret. And your Father, who sees [what is done] in secret, will repay you."
Uncomfortably, "Secret Millionaire" gets the secret part only half-correct. In a decade or so of hits and misses, reality TV producers seem to have never encountered the notion that there is something watchable in humility.
Instead, "Secret Millionaire" introduces us in its first episode to a master hornblower named Dani Johnson, a 41-year-old, silky-tressed Texas woman who claims to have become a millionaire in her early 20s, starting with nothing more than a roll of quarters and a pay phone. At one point - she tells us over and over - she was living in her car. Now she's a happily married mother and grandmother and a one-woman industry of self-help media and sales seminars with a Christian twist. "I boot-strapped it, baby," Johnson says.
"Secret Millionaire" sends her to live in the blighted Western Heights section of Knoxville, Tenn. She gets a small, dirty apartment and $40 in cash (equivalent to a week of food stamps in those parts) to survive. The cameras follow Johnson as she sets off to find volunteer opportunities around town; each of her encounters is, of course, filmed as a serendipitous event, in which the person ringing the doorbell and the person answering are both somehow conveniently trailed by camera crews.
"Secret Millionaire" is most genuine when Johnson visits the Love Kitchen, a charity run by two delightful, elderly twins named Helen and Ellen, who serve food to the homeless and needy. In a few minutes of screen time, the sisters humbly describe their work and motivation. They could be their own TV show, and a much better one than "Secret Millionaire." But that's the rub: They are too good and too real for reality TV.
The show doesn't spend nearly enough time describing how Johnson became a millionaire, so it's off to the Internet to paw through the layers of PR bunk and finally learn: She sold diet pills in one of those multilevel marketing schemes. It seems she was so good at it that her rocket eventually reached orbit; now she coaches others on how to get rich by getting other people to sell stuff to other people.
I find that a little galling. "Secret Millionaire" bestows on Johnson a beatific status, and she, in turn, glorifies herself (and her brand) by whipping out the checkbook. Further episodes will follow another motivational millionaire to Gary, Ind.; a couple who founded the Curves health club chain will gift the poor of Houston; and a real estate mogul from San Diego gets a cliched eyeful of misery in Detroit.
When Johnson returns to the Love Kitchen to give Helen and Ellen a check, I will be the first to admit that "Secret Millionaire" has a tear-streaked, joyful payoff for all, including viewers. The sisters weep with astonishment, thanking Johnson and then offering exuberant praise to God.
Still, how I wish Helen and Ellen would hand this woman her check back, and tell her (and the producers) thanks, but no, thanks - we don't appreciate being lied to.
Secret Millionaire (one hour) premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC.
America's Next Great Restaurant (one hour) premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on NBC.