Thursday, December 4, 2008

Fox network's "Secret Millionaire" found to be highly offensive

First of all, just let me say that I love television. I am a news junkie who could watch FoxNews, like, all day long, every day, although I don't. Because as it turns out, I am also an HGTV junkie, a Bravo junkie, and EWTN junkie, a Food Network junkie and a TLC junkie. I love Martha Stewart and simply cannot bear Oprah. I'm terribly fond of Top Chef, Everyday Italian, House Hunters, Property Ladder and Samantha Brown's junkets around the world.

So last night, the four of us were watching television, which we do with a great deal of editorial commentary, sometimes uncomplimentary. Last night's commentary tended toward the insulted and outraged, all due to a new program on Fox titled Secret Millionaire.

Secret Millionaire is a reality show that has a premise that initially seems very kind and philanthrophic: a millionaire, disguised as a "regular person" (and look! My first red flag went up RIGHT THERE!) goes among the poor and downtrodden, pretending to be one of them by donning unlovely clothing sans designer labels, thoughtfully laying aside their big honkin' diamond rings, Rolex watches and Italian suits for one week of slumming.

The initial episode featured a multi-millionaire (he earnestly assured us of this fact several times. Several hundred times) Todd Graves and his wife, Mrs. Richie McRicherson, whose actual name I didn't catch. The missus told the viewing audience that she is also wealthy in her own right, having been the owner of a very lucrative McDonald's franchise which she sold in order to be able to spend more time with her two children.

The Graveses left their gorgeous and lavishly landscaped Baton Rouge mansion to go farther south in Louisiana to a small town in Plaquemines Parish where they would be undercover for a week, posing as helpful volunteers taking part in a documentary on poverty in America. That seems kind of convoluted, doesn't it? But they had to have some reason for going everywhere with a camera crew, so there you have it.

Finding their living quarters for the week was the first order of the day, however, and Todd and his wife pulled up in their giant black Chevy Tahoe in front of a small RV, the same type of RV that many people around here use for weekend adventuring. It was actually not a bad looking RV, although it was made purposely tacky by having some ugly resin lawn chairs kind of haphazardly thrown about, plus one of those big wooden spools used to hold cable of the kinds used by Comcast, electric companies and the telephone company, as a table. There was a trash can out front, if I remember correctly, and also a half-hearted string of twinkle lights strung drunkenly across the RV's outdoor awning.

When you visit campgrounds around here in the summertime, this sort of thing is a common sight, although the twinkle lights are usually attached to the RV with some sense of order. You can often see strings of little electric Chinese lanterns strung outside, which I think are very cute. But put the ugly trash can out back, and get rid of the wooden table and the battered chairs and replace them with some clean, inexpensive resin furniture and you can see the way many American people pleasurably pass a weekend at the lakes.

The Graveses, however, were totally freaked out. They looked completely appalled as they stared out the windows of their SUV at their new digs. It was as if they couldn't believe the squalor and depravity of having to live! For a week! In an RV beneath a shade tree!

"There's....dirt....on it," the missus quavered, and then I felt certain that she and her husband must employ a team of groundskeepers who bathe their house weekly and perhaps massage its bricks with La Prairie skin caviar. Because, dirt? Who would ever expect to find that outdoors?

I feel that the producers of this new series made a major misstep here, because it makes me think about all the weekend vacationers who were slightly taken aback -- or maybe even completely offended -- that these special people were disgusted at the thought of spending a week in a cute little RV.

Then we found out that Todd and his wife have been given $120 to spend on groceries and gas for the week, so the two of them trundle off to the local market, passing by scenes of catastrophic devastation that Katrina left behind three years ago. My heart was in the process of breaking wide open at the continuing tragedy that the people of Louisiana and gulf states have suffered when I realized that the Graveses were at the grocery, and there we learned about the real tragedy.

"How are we going to budget this?" Mrs. Graves said helplessly.

In a voice over, Todd Graves said that he didn't know how in the world they were going to budget for their groceries, because they are SO FREAKING RICH that they actually have people who do all their shopping for them. Because, you see, when you are Todd and Whosis Graves and you have made your money through the auspices of a chain of restaurants called Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers and a big ol' greasy McDonald's, you do not sully your precious and important self with the rest of the commoners in the local Winn-Dixie.

Todd and Whosis racked up $98 worth of groceries for the two of them and then were in the embarrassing position of having to put some of the food back, which made Whosis look like she was going to burst into noisy sobs as her husband said things like, "Take off the baked beans." I could have told Whosis that these things get easier with time -- after your tenth or eleventh time of telling the cashier that you can't afford the pork chops and the tomato soup after all, you have the choice of either growing a thicker hide or making sure you have a piece of paper and a pencil with you every week so that you can keep a running total as you grab things off the shelves.

Giving back some of their purchases brought the grocery tab back down to around $84, I believe, and considering that that's about four dollars more than I spend for an entire family of four plus two dogs every week, I think they did a really super job, don't you?

The Graveses spent the week going around to different places in the town of Buras, Louisiana, talking to different people who are trying to help the community get put back together. They were also supposed to be helping, but that must've taken place off camera, because what the viewing audience saw was mostly them standing around and talking.

They decided on four different people to help: The first was a couple who was trying to set up a coffee shop/church. (We got to see inside their FEMA trailer and as the camera panned around the bleak interior, I got tears in my eyes. There have been people living in those things for two or three YEARS now.) The second person was a pastor who helped people with their groceries (he was rebuilding his church) and the last was a high school football coach.

On the morning Todd and Whosis were to go around handing out their money, Todd sat at the dining table in their RV and wrote out three checks for $150,000 each, which was pretty darn generous, even though I was already hating the show. But then he did a weird thing: He dated the checks for April 31, 2008. Huh??!! Last night, I thought it was my imagination, but this morning when I did a little online research in order to write this post, it turns out that a bunch of other people noticed it, too. I'm sincerely hoping that this was rectified later, since April 31 doesn't exist, but I guess when you're in the chicken finger business, little things like April's having only thirty days don't really matter.

After writing the checks, Todd and Whosis got dressed up in their richhhhhhhhhh clothes, complete with huge diamond ear studs and some flashy rings for her and a tailored suit for him. "It's gonna be weird, showing up in this $2000 suit to tell these people we've been lying to them all week," said Todd, sighing worriedly as he put on his very expensive watch. You know, Todd, it turns out that money spends the same way, even if you're dressed in khaki shorts and a faded University of Louisiana sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. But if you really want to go for the class division impact and wear your two thousand dollar suit while handing out your money to the serfs, by all means, go for it. I was surprised that he didn't wear a gold-plated sign around his neck that read "ARMANI."

Watching Todd and Whosis (whose name turns out to be Gwen...I just found that out) hand out the money was extremely painful. Mostly because the people were genuinely overwhelmed and excited, but the Graveses had such an air of noblesse oblige about them, I couldn't help but hope that they'd step in cow poop or that a great big truck would drive by and spray them with muddy water or something.

"I'm sorry to tell you this, but this whole week we've been here? We've been lying to you," said Todd, furrowing his brow as he looked at the coffee shop/church people.

"We haven't been honest with you about who we are," elaborated Gwen, scrutinizing them carefully with her eyes wide open, just in case being poor means you're stupid and they didn't understand the first time. "We're from Baton Rouge, and our lives there are very, very different."

I kid you not. Yes, she said that, or at least a near approximation. That was when my whole family started hurling throw pillows at the television. Why would you say something like that to a couple of good people who are trying to rebuild after a devastating natural disaster that has completely changed their lives? Why would you sort of rub it in that everything in your life is clean and tidy and mega-prosperous when their lives, from the financial standpoint, are clearly sucky? Aarrrgghhh.....

To the football coach, once Todd had got past the place of telling the guy he and Gwen had been lying all week, Todd said, "My life in Baton Rouge has been very blessed." And let me tell you, if there's one thing that makes me want to HURT SOMEONE, is when they tell you (without your having solicited the information) that their lives have been so blessed and that they're about to give you something because your life, well, it's obvious that your life has not been blessed, up until now, anyway. Because this check with the false date on it? Well, mister, that's YOUR ticket out of the gutter.

The football coach was overcome and had to try to keep from crying, either because he appreciated the money or because he'd noticed the date on the check and was trying to figure out if he was being punked, and thus should instruct his players to use Todd as a tackling dummy, or maybe hug him. In the end, the coach went for the hug and Todd, to his credit, did not hold him at arm's length and say, "Hey. I'm glad to give you the money, man, but you're kinda sweaty and I am wearing a $2000 suit."

At the point when I wanted to eat my own head, the show ended. Todd and Gwen drove back to their home (which one of them pointed out was, like, SO MUCH BIGGER AND NICER than that RV) and they pulled up in the driveway with gusty sighs of relief. Life is so much nicer when you don't have to pretend to be an icky poor person. What would it be like to really be one? Ewwww! Thank goodness they won't have to worry about that!

I can't decide where Fox is going with this one. I thought maybe my husband and I (and the girls, of course) were maybe the only ones who thought it was crazy offensive, but in poking about the internet this morning, it turns out that there are lots of other people who thought Todd and Gwen were idiots. But even more than the Duke and Duchess of Graves, something about this entire concept makes me want to throw up.

Like this, for instance: Isn't it much nicer when a wealthy person donates money to a cause and you never know it at the time because they are so humble? Then you find out later that the person is a kind-hearted philanthropist and your heart is moved at their goodness?

Maybe other people get a thrill out of seeing the rich swooping down from Mt. Olympus to deliver their largesse, but not me. I'm one of those people who scowls at donor boards at theaters and churches and museums and the like; also those lists of "Diamond Contributors," et cetera, that you can see in playbills. "There. You have your reward, Mr. and Mrs. Braggy," I always think. "There it is, rendered in 4 point type amidst about three hundred other names."

Here's the last word on the story, straight from Matthew 6:1-4

(But) take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.


Kayte said...

OMW...this show sounds very crazy. I laughed so hard at your descriptions of were right on with your comments...LOL. Who dreams up these shows anyway?

Ray said...

I think some folks say "I've been blessed with (fill in the blanks, wealth, health, etc) as a way to kind of not trying to brag... in other words. I find it a false modesty myself.
But, the question I have is are we blessed with good luck, material things, etc? Or does God challenge us with those things? If He is challenging us with them, then we had better use them to good effect.
I think the people who are truly blessed are the ones that don't become attached to material things, but rather give them away responsibly, with love, and with no expectations of a return. That requires a lot of blessing. The millionaires gave from their surplus, which is nice. The people who they helped gave from their own limited resources... and certainly seemed happier.
I acutally met some of the folks 2 years ago when my son and I volunteered in Buras over the holidays. They were, hands down, the best holidays I ever spent.