In defense of gold diggers everywhere, perhaps it is not wrong to covet Evan Wallace's millionaire booty, in addition to his other booty.

We are, of course, subverting the wisdom of the Fox network here. "Joe Millionaire" is not so much reality television as it is morality television, with its bachelor a rich-seeming poor man who says he just wants to be loved for himself and 20 female contestants who eye his stately French chateau and declare: "I swear I was meant to live like this" and "I like pearls."

The question Fox attempts to pose -- reprised in an encore of the first two episodes tonight at 8 -- is not whether the women are shallow, money-grubbing harpies, but rather to what extent they are shallow, money-grubbing harpies.

Now allow us to consider, Kurosawa-like, an alternative interpretation: $50 million is not a bad thing to desire, if it happens to accompany the right guy. At the very least, a woman desiring a wealthy man is no more shallow than a man desiring a beautiful woman. Folks want the whole package. Romance is complicated; it has to do with things material and ephemeral, with fantasies and fairy tales. It is, in short, a sort of conjuring.

We come to this conclusion during a mixed gathering in Dupont Circle of young, single folks who are drinking beer and readying themselves for Episode 2 of "Joe Millionaire" on Monday night. While we get, at first, the expected assessment of the show's female contestants ("These girls seem totally money-hungry," says Brenna Corson, 26), we also encounter a mild defense of them, at least among the women.

"It's the classic story of Cinderella," says Corson's friend, TV producer Kate Amick, 26. "It came out in 'Pretty Woman.' 'Maid in Manhattan' -- that's the big movie these days."

"I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting someone to take care of you," Corson concedes, carefully. "Essentially that's what these women are looking for."

Amick is seeing it in her mind's eye: "I can be beautiful, I can be elegant, I can meet this man who can give me this fairy tale life -- "

"That's what every girl dreams of," Corson finishes.

Well, maybe not every girl. But darned if we don't, as a culture, believe in the legacy of that glass slipper girl. It's a funny thing, reality television -- the way it manages simultaneously to decry and embrace the same thing. On the one hand, we are expected to detest every instance in which one of Evan's potential sweethearts grins at the sight of a sapphire necklace. On the other hand, the setup is straight out of Hans Christian Andersen, and the women have been handpicked to do precisely what's expected: believe in the fantasy. Dayana, Dana, all the Melissas and even Heidi -- competitive, gown-snatching Heidi -- are bowling pins, set up to be knocked down.

"It's sad in a way, because they're totally deceived, these girls," says Corson, a transit planner in town from San Diego. "I know I'll feel bad for them at the end."

Can true love exist in a vacuum, utterly devoid of material concerns? Who among us hasn't admired the way that wealth -- like a well-cut wool suit -- works a subtle alchemy of grace and power on a person who is otherwise ordinary? Who hasn't noticed that money can ease a relationship's tensions, allow for quiet evenings and candlelight dinners? If love is free, romance is often a luxury.

Money matters. One of the men in attendance, Radley Balko, a 27-year-old Web site editor, puts it like this at one point, "A woman who has a JD -- I think it's ridiculous that she should love a construction worker."

We sidle into the living room with our beer to watch the start of the show and consider the other moral quandary at the center of "Joe Millionaire": Evan Wallace (dumb-as-rocks recent inheritor of $50 million), who is really Evan Marriott (dumb-as-rocks construction worker turned underwear model).

"He is such a dork," one woman remarks.

Well, yes. But beyond that, Evan -- who in his slightly-too-bigness reminds us of Andre the Giant -- is an interesting study. He wants the women to love him for himself, but he lies about his identity. He does confess to some hesitation about this, and he dodges a lot of the women's questions about his personal life (though we think this has less to do with his discomfort with lying and more to do with the wheels in his head being not too well greased). In any case, we wonder if the men can step in -- as the women did -- and defend this representative of their sex.

"I don't think he's smart enough to be reprehensible," offers Gene Healy, 32, an editor colleague of Balko's.

"I think they're doing a good job of editing him into having a conscience," suggests Amick's boyfriend, Sean McMahon, 27.

That's as good as Evan gets from this crowd. Still, we get the sense that in the odd moral calculus of reality television, Evan is supposed to be seen almost as noble. He is exposing the women as -- in the words of countless "Joe Millionaire" viewers on message boards -- "hos." This means any humiliation is fitting. Any deception is justified. The more scheming and greedy these women are, the more viewers enjoy seeing them get their comeuppance. They pay for the audience's pleasure with their ethical ugliness.

Perhaps, suggests Healy, the show's entertainment value is proportional to its degradations.

On-screen, in a test of the women's values and mettle, Evan is having them shovel out stables. One pronounces herself a "little princess." Another mounts a horse and starts crying. At last they make it to the last leg of the hour, when Evan will hand out sapphire necklaces to the five who get to stay. ("The trinkets are almost like a carrot to keep them in the game," observes Joanne McNeil, 22, a George Mason student sitting in the corner.)

Evan does his best to demonstrate his disgust with shallowness.

"Sarah's a little more uptight than the girls I normally date, but I mean she's hot, so I'm going to give her a shot," he says, handing out the fourth necklace.

The butler says: "And finally we have -- "

Cut to contestants' anxious faces.

"These poor, pathetic women!" declares Helen Mitchell, 23.

"Melissa Jo!"

The women make goo-goo eyes at their necklaces.

We begin to worry: Will Evan ever find his dream woman?

According to the reasoning of "Joe Millionaire," says Sharon Lamb, author of "The Secret Lives of Girls," that woman would have to fit narrow constraints.

In addition, of course, to loving Evan for his clever mind rather than his money, "She has to be pretty, she has to be smart and forthright, she has to look good in a gown and she has to be able to shovel manure. And that's the fairy tale, too."

Young singles gather in a Dupont Circle living room to watch the second installment of "Joe Millionaire" and put in their two cents.Brenna Corson, center, and her friend Kate Amick offer a mild defense of the women vying for Joe and his millions, but Radley Balko just can't see it. As for Evan, below, he got little support, even from the men in the viewing crowd.