When Fox announced that it was riding the current wave of obsession with the British royal family by putting together a show called “I Wanna Marry ‘Harry,’ ” most of the reaction centered on what sort of woman could be dumb enough to think that one of the Princes of Wales would actually participate in an American dating show. Those skeptics apparently have not read up on their H.L. Mencken or kept current with the state of American reality television. There is a seemingly endless supply of people willing to take a shot at finding love on television, or who will believe someone is rich just because a television producer tells them so.
The oddest thing about “I Wanna Marry ‘Harry,’ ” which premiered last night, is that the show relies on an assumption that it never bothers to support: that Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor is a desirable spouse. The show takes this so thoroughly for granted that, in setting up a bloodbath over the fake Harry’s hand, it never takes a moment to consider whether its basic premise is true — or that there is something truly odd about the spectacle of a gaggle of American women falling all over themselves to be part of the British monarchy.
Let us consider the evidence, shall we? Prince Henry of Wales, who will turn 30 this fall, may have a royal title and a steady job, but I am not sure how much else there is to recommend him as some sort of dream catch.
He has a record of the sort of racial attitudes that seem like they stem from a very prolonged stay in a very protected bubble. Harry once showed up to a costume party wearing an armband emblazoned with a swastika and once referred to another man in his army platoon as “our little Paki friend.” Harry is the sort of bro who plays strip poker in Vegas, and in his younger days, got into it with the paparazzi. Some of these incidents seem like the inevitable consequence of growing up in public in a way that means your minor indiscretions, such as youthful pot-smoking and drinking, become media fodder. But some of them also make Harry seem a little reckless and spoiled, especially for someone who grew up famous, and famous in a way that carries expectations for deportment.
Even beyond his particular qualities, marrying into the royal family comes with burdens as well as perks, particularly if, as some of the show’s contestants claim, you care about your career. Harry’s two serious girlfriends, Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas, both chose to focus on work rather than giving up the prospect of their independence for a title.
Kate Middleton’s willingness to wait out Harry’s older brother, William, and her seeming lack of interest in any job other than that of future Queen of England, marked her as an odd sort of throwback. At least Kate has a reasonable shot of becoming queen some day. With Harry fourth in line for the throne, behind his father, his brother and his nephew Prince George, Harry’s future bride will be giving up an awful lot of career autonomy in exchange for a career that consists mostly of walking rope lines and going to parties.
Maybe that is what the dozen women who let themselves be flown over to England to participate in this farce actually want out of life. But I suspect that the great innovation of “I Wanna Marry ‘Harry’ ” is accidental.
“Harry” is actually a friendly, mostly-broke guy named Matt who works cleaning up oil spills. The women who are vying for his hand are talking themselves into an imaginary version of the real Harry: One calls him “the ultimate Prince Charming,” while another focuses on her desire for a wealthy spouse. None of them appear to have any real sense of who Harry might be as a person, what he does for a living or how ending up with him might materially affect their own lives. The mutual misunderstandings that are the fuel for so much dating-show drama have rarely been so obvious, or so baked into the program’s premise.
“I’m going to be hugely cut up about lying to 12 women,” Matt explains at the beginning of the show’s first episode. The truth is, they are lying to him and to themselves, too. “I Wanna Marry ‘Harry’ ” may not be great television. But in its own twisted, deceptive way, it is weirdly honest about the kind of self-deception that other reality shows pass off as true romance.