The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The first ‘Joe Millionaire’ was a cruel trick. Nearly two decades later, the reboot is just sad.

Kurt meets Sara Rose in the season premiere of “Joe Millionaire: For Richer or Poorer.” The controversial series originally aired in 2003. (Wilford Harewood/Fox)
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Nearly two decades ago, 20 women were lured to a reality dating show and told that the single man in front of them was worth $50 million — and for the low, low price of their dignity, he was up for grabs! The show was Fox’s “Joe Millionaire,” and it was all a lie. The bachelor in question, Evan Marriott, made $19,000 a year at his construction job. A whopping 40 million people watched the finale, eager to see if the “winner” would faint on sight at the reveal of misleading finances.

The show was a phenomenon, parodied on “Saturday Night Live” and resulted in endless headlines. But it didn’t leave many people feeling particularly good about themselves. Marriott and the first-season “winner,” Zora Andrich, broke up shortly after splitting the $1 million prize money. Showrunner Liz Bronstein realized she wasn’t cut out for the reality dating genre: “I didn’t want to spend my career lying to people and tricking them,” she told The Washington Post in 2020. The last time she heard from Marriott, she said, “He called me and pitched me a show about how reality TV shows had ruined the lives of people who had gone on them.”

But now, because no show can ever, ever just go away, “Joe Millionaire” is back.

Technically, the reboot is called “Joe Millionaire: For Richer or Poorer,” and it premiered Thursday night on Fox. Perhaps realizing that the original premise isn’t quite as hilarious as executives thought back in 2003, this one takes a different tactic: In 2022, there are two Joes. The first Joe is named Steven, and he’s a 27-year-old chief executive of his family’s farming and ranching operation in Missouri. His net worth is “just a touch over $10 million.” The second Joe is named Kurt, and he’s a 32-year-old construction chief executive and general contractor from North Carolina. His net worth is not disclosed, but a news release confirms he is “definitely NOT” a millionaire.

The Joes have problems. Rich Joe is worried that women are a little too interested in his money. Poor Joe says some women don’t want to date a guy who wears a hard hat to work. The Joes have come to the right place — because the show’s twist is that the 18 women vying for their attention won’t know which one is which.

“You’re both driven, gosh-darn handsome, hard-working CEOs. However, one of you is incredibly wealthy, and the other, shall we say … is not,” Martin, the butler/host, gravely tells the Joes when they move into their living quarters. He says that the contestants will not be told anything about their financial status. “You both must do your part to keep the secret.”

And in case anyone has any lingering doubts about the motivations of producers, Martin adds: “Last time on ‘Joe Millionaire,’ it was about deceiving women into believing a fantasy. This time, we’re focusing on what matters — human connections.”

In theory, this seems to be the point, to test out that age-old question: What’s more important, love or money? In practice, the series is exactly like any other awkward dating show you might have seen in the past 20 years. There’s manipulation, fighting, questionable decisions, lots of champagne, a pool party where people strip off their clothes and a contestant being seriously overserved until they break down weeping in a bathroom.

Of course, the viewing public has an extraordinary appetite for demoralizing reality shows, so “Joe Millionaire: FROP” could certainly find an audience. As soon as the contestants arrive, the producers happily introduce a potential disaster: Steven realizes that he already knows one woman, Caroline. They matched on a dating app and followed each other on Instagram, so Caroline knows he likes to relax at the end of a long day by taking his helicopter for a spin. There’s only one solution: Caroline’s out.

“My whole goal in coming here was to find love in its truest form, and meeting women that don’t know anything about me whatsoever,” Steven says earnestly. Caroline is shipped off in a car and starts sobbing. “Biggest waste of my time,” she says in the understatement of the episode.

Later, there’s plenty of gasping and “WHAT?!” reactions when Martin the butler explains the whole “one of these dudes is super-rich and one of them may or may not be broke” situation. (The women try to figure it out among themselves: Why does Steven make a certain expression whenever the subject of money comes up? Is Kurt’s man bun a trick to throw them off?) Steven immediately almost cracks under the pressure when the contestants start grilling him about his hobbies. “Even if I bring up paddle boarding, I can’t say I built a 20-acre lake that I love to go paddle boarding on,” he sighs to Kurt.

The group then splits into two: A “fancy” date with Kurt where everyone goes to a cotillion, and a “poor” date with Steven where they go to a dive bar to get drunk and line dance. The latter obviously ends up being way more fun (the first of many times the show will teach us that rich does not necessarily equal better?!) and leads to the aforementioned pool party. The miserable-looking cotillion involves spats among contestants when Rachel and Suzan argue who gets to wear a silver sparkly dress, and Calah and Sara Rose feud over an issue that is never actually explained. Rachel tries to settle her nerves with loads of alcohol, leading up to her breaking down crying, giving off real “Bachelor” premiere night energy.

For 20 years, reality TV dating shows have provided escapism and entertainment, but at times have perpetuated damaging stereotypes. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

“I’m a drama-free type of guy,” says Kurt, which is unfortunate for him. “I tend to run away from it at this point in my life.”

But this is a reality dating show, so the dramatic contestants are the most entertaining, and they must stay. Monica, who made the error of interrupting Steven when he was having an intense conversation with Carolyn, is sent home; so is Brookell, a self-professed city girl who may not love life on a farm. The trailer teasing the rest of the season promises more chaos and crying, which really emphasizes that while the old “Joe Millionaire” may have been a cruel trick, this one is just sad.

Read more:

The revealing and disturbing story of America, told through 20 years of reality dating shows

What does reality TV owe Black women?

‘Love Is Blind’ acknowledges that dating is too visual. But it doesn’t offer a real solution.