Dobrow Finds a 'Secret Millionaire'

Media Reviews for Media People: And Picks His Favorites of 2008

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When I first happened upon "Secret Millionaire," my first impulse was to check the cable box. I'd flipped over to Fox expecting some of the network's patented animated whimsy or perhaps one of its 37 dramas anchored by a disagreeable wonderboy. Instead, I was treated to actual human emotion -- tears motivated by a fellow human being's plight, rather than by a sub-par showing at the bedchamber elimination ceremony.

'Secret Millionaire:' Rich people have feelings, too, it seems, and the show attempts to humanize them by putting us on the scene the moment they realize it.
'Secret Millionaire:' Rich people have feelings, too, it seems, and the show attempts to humanize them by putting us on the scene the moment they realize it. Credit: Fox
This caused me no small distress. It had been weeks since Fox torpedoed a marriage torpedoed a marriage or performed a gleeful rain dance on some tubbo's self-esteem in the interest of entertainment. There I was, jonesing for my sub-lowbrow Fox fix, and the network instead goes all "Extreme Home Makeover" on my ass?

Happily, there is no premise that cannot be Fox-ified, as the net deftly demonstrates with "Secret Millionaire." Here, Fox strips millionaires of their billfolds and baubles, then sends them out undercover (read: in T-shirt and tastefully faded jeans) to find worthy recipients for a $100,000 bequest. Rich people have feelings, too, it seems, and the show attempts to humanize them by putting us on the scene the moment they realize it.

After chronicling the millionaire's life of excess in a quickie champagne-n-monograms montage, the show sets him up in a fleabag apartment (which wouldn't look all that bad to the average American family of four). From there, the millionaire hits the streets in search of the redeemably sad, poor and wretched. After hearing lots of stories and philosophizing to the cameras about his adventure ("grocery shopping -- it's not that easy"), he unmasks himself to his pitiable friends and showers them with cash. Hugging ensues.

The show's real problem, and likely the reason it hasn't generated an "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" level of devotion among the easily manipulated, is that it doesn't come across as genuine. I have no doubt that the millionaires want to help individuals less fortunate than they are -- hey, they're cutting a six-digit check, right? -- and I believe their stunned reactions upon hearing the tales of woe are unstaged. But something here doesn't feel quite right.

Somehow the cameras always manage to catch a fist-sized insect roaming around the millionaire's temporary crash pad. Somehow nobody questions the flimsy "this nice-looking fellow is making a documentary about poverty" premise. Somehow all the potential beneficiaries are neatly groomed, slathered in HD-friendly makeup and able to speak in perfect sound bites ("hope is alive today").

Additionally, Fox weighs down the "Secret Millionaire" walkabouts with its usual dramatic tics: the slo-mo shots of scumbags being tucked into police cars, the mopily acoustic background music, the vocal effects that add a layer of menace to prophesies like "watch your back (-ack, -ack, -ack, -ack ...)." This has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that the stories aren't dramatic enough on their own, that they demand cosmetic enhancement of some sort.

I don't buy it, and I suspect that anybody with a triple-digit IQ won't, either. I'll say this, though: for a show that traffics in grit and grime (in theory, anyway), "Secret Millionaire" seriously jumps off the screen. The colors are bright and the images are sharp. Dude, poverty looks awesome in hi-def.

The Year That Was
In the wrapping-up-loose-ends spirit of the season, I figured I'd throw out my best-of picks for the year that's soon to be behind us. They come with the usual Uncle Larry caveat: If you disagree with me, you're wrong.

Awesome stuff on TV: "The Shield" (the two most haunting words I heard this year: "family meeting"); ESPNews (SportsCenter's sober, sensible cousin); "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" (the Fuse-skewering "Jim and Derrick Show" parody couldn't have been more dead-on);"30 Rock" (but really, enough with the guest stars); "The Wire" (the show's fifth season was its weakest and still managed to leave me both emotionally battered and indignant).

Awesome stuff on the web: The Consumerist (as entertaining as it is righteous); Woot and WootShirt (who cares what they're selling? The copy is a consistent creative wonder); PopDose (one of the few pop-culture sites not populated by jaded jagoffs, and supremely literate to boot); The Soxaholix (and I'm a Yankee fan); My Damn Channel (let's just turn the internet over to David Wain and his former "State" cohorts, and call it an afternoon).

Awesome stuff everywhere else: The Hold Steady, "Stay Positive" ("Constructive Summer" is the definitive anthem for the 19-year-old in all of us); Runner's World magazine (helped transform an activity into a lifestyle); "Fate" (yet another note-perfect Nike pairing of brand and imagery); Larry Doyle's "I Love You, Beth Cooper" (the coming-of-age novel as R-rated farce); democracy (occasionally, it works).

Happy holidays, y'all, and thanks for reading.

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