Kids, let me take you back to the innocent days of 2003. Outkast greeted listeners with a hearty “Hey Ya!” Americans were enjoying the delicious, jingoistic flavor of “freedom fries.” And a little Fox show called Joe Millionaire taught America to laugh again, at the deceptive premise of tricking a bevy of bachelorettes into trying to win the hand of Evan Marriott, the rich guy who wasn’t.
Reality TV must be old enough to have entered its nostalgia phase. Because now, after Joe Millionaire launched a million has-reality-gone-too-far thinkpieces 11 years ago, the producers of Fox’s I Wanna Marry “Harry” have created what is, for all practical purposes, a remake. The hook behind “Harry” (premiering Tuesday, May 20) is slightly different; rather than a fake rich guy, this one dangles fake royalty: Matthew Hicks, a ginger-haired English bachelor who looks like British Prince Harry, kinda, sorta, if you squint. No one is flat-out told that “Harry” is Harry, but there’s enough royal bunting draped around him to drop the hint.
The original Joe Millionaire was a colossal hit, drawing 40 million viewers for its February 2003 finale. (A sequel in the fall of the same year bombed.) But presumably Fox must believe its participants were too young to be watching at the time, because the opening episode is weirdly similar, down to minor details and scenes. (I haven’t been able to find the original Joe online, but this four-minute clip from its first episode will give you a sense of it.) Hicks, like Marriott, is housed in a bucolic estate. There’s a butler figure/host, as in the original Joe Millionaire, who instructs him about table etiquette and fine stemware in a Pygmalion-esque sequence. Like “Joe,” he even gets fencing lessons. Like Joe’s dates, “Harry”‘s are made to stampede each other to a rack of ball gowns to dress up for the inaugural party. Even the one-on-one interviews repeat the 2003 version, right down to a woman saying “I’m a competitive person.” This is like the Gus Van Sant’s Psycho of sexist reality shows:
Unfortunately, “Harry” also copies Joe in the stereotypical assumptions of its setup: that its women are shallow, materialistic dupes who will let go of their scruples and skepticism to land a golden ticket, or in this case a crown. (To be fair, the first episode does have at least one skeptic who’s seen pictures of the actual Harry and doesn’t believe this is the real royal deal.) The sexist typecasting–the “naughty” one, the self-described “bitch,” the “fairy tale” references–is more or less typical of many dating shows, but with the added, gross dimension of money.
What “Harry” doesn’t have that the original Joe Millionaire did, at least so far, is any real sense of shame. Airing earlier in the reality era, Joe Millionaire was either naive or ambitious enough to add a meta-layer about the show behind the show: we saw Marriott become increasingly, wrenchingly guilty about having to go through with the contractually obligated lie. (At the time, Marriott told TIME that he only found out about the deceptive premise of the show after signing the contract to appear in it.) The original Joe was edited as a reality comedy, but there was a thread of darkness to it, with its night-vision spy cameras and ominous music. It was meant to be titillating, obviously, but the framing at least carried the suggestion that a viewer might see something, well, wrong here.
“Harry,” judging by its first episode, has no such pangs. It’s a product made for an audience inured by a decade of reality shows to duplicitous gimmicks and contrived catfights. Its tone, visuals, and scoring are light, because, hey, it’s just entertainment and these ladies all signed up for a reality show, and whatevs, right? Hicks comes across as a pleasant enough guy, but while it seems to take some work for him to lead the women on–mostly by staying quiet when they ask him whether his other house is Buckingham Palace–he doesn’t seem tortured about it, at least not yet. Maybe that will come in later episodes, with time. Or maybe, in the ensuing 11 years, reality TV has learned to become more controlled, more controlling–lighter in tone yet more slick and ruthless in its self-presentation.
I Wanna Marry “Harry” is like reality dating TV for the era of Game of Thrones, the dark HBO fantasy drama which is recalled in a scene where Hicks greets his dates while fire-breathing and fire-juggling entertainers dance outside the mansion. And if there’s one thing Game of Thrones has taught us, it’s this: sometimes you’re a lot better off just skipping the royal wedding.