'Secret Millionaire' and 'Next Great Restaurant': Cheesy bites of Humility Helper

The reality TV series follows a group of self-made millionaires who go undercover in some of the country's poorest areas, rewarding the its unsung heroes with thousands of dollars of their own money. The show airs March 6 at 8 p.m. ET.
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.

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