During Fox’s reality heyday in the early ’00s, the network had a gift for developing outlandish, yet unmissable, reality romance shows like Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire and Temptation Island. But its most ingenious creation was 2003’s Joe Millionaire, which posed the enthralling question: What if the too-good-to-be-true Mr. Right was indeed, too good to be true? The Bachelor had debuted a year earlier, and audiences were ripe for a show that punctured its saccharine fairy-tale storyline.
Joe Millionaire did just that: a group of women vied for the heart of Evan Marriott, whom they thought had just received a seven-figure inheritance, but in truth was a blue-collar construction worker. It became a reality smash, with 34.6 million (!) viewers tuning into the finale, in which Marriott revealed the truth to Zora Andrich (she stuck around just long enough to split a $1 million prize with him). But the thrill was already gone when Fox rushed out a hasty follow-up later that year, The Next Joe Millionaire. It was a ratings dud, leading the network’s then-chief to admit, “We got greedy. We tried to sneak it by the American public a second time and we got called on it.”
It’s a lesson Fox has forgotten during the past 11 years, because they’re at it again with I Wanna Marry “Harry” (premiering tonight at 9 p.m. ET), which delivers the same stale, unsatisfying results as the second Joe. This time around, 12 woman plucked from Bachelor Casting 101 assemble at a castle near London to woo a mysterious man, whom they all come to believe is Prince Harry of Wales. In fact, he’s a Harry look-alike (well, look-sorta-like) named Matt Hicks, a fact that will be kept under wraps until Not Harry narrows the field to one lucky (?) woman. While Harry sets out to reveal what happens when Prince Charming isn’t actually a prince, its listless premiere only proves the evolving reality landscape has rendered this kind of show irrelevant.
Without a host or a jovial manservant (where have you gone, Joe Millionaire MVP Paul Hogan? A TV nation turns its lonely eyes to you.) to take the reins, it’s quickly apparent what a dud Hicks, 23, is. The show, obviously grading on a curve, claims he’s a “99 percent match” with Prince Harry; if that’s true, that remaining 1 percent makes all the difference. Even the show seems to realize this, spending only a scant few minutes on his background (he’s so poor that he borrows a friend’s bike to ride to work each day, and has a job helping to clean up oil spills). “But he’s good-hearted!” Mr. Voiceover assures us. He’s also either incredibly naïve or alarmingly delusional: “The goal is for them to like me for who I am,” explains Hicks (helpfully ID’d as “Not Really Prince Harry”). “I ultimately want to find a genuine romance and fall in love.”
Not gonna happen, given that his only compelling quality—at least onscreen—is his physical resemblance to Prince Harry. Evan Marriott was no prince either (theoretically speaking), but he at least had some degree of onscreen charisma. So far Hicks is far too reserved to connect with viewers. Even the show’s attempt to replicate one of Joe Millionaire’s more amusing sequences—the crash course in etiquette from personal butler Kingsley (who is only occasionally seen and is a major step down from Millionaire’s cheeky manservant Hogan)—falls flat.
But Not Harry isn’t the only one playing a role. The 12 women he’s wooing are all well-versed in the reality romance genre and cheerfully embrace their stock personas: “I’m a little off my rocker” (Chelsea); “My occupation is Miss Los Angeles” (Anna Lisa); “I’m a preschool teacher, and kind of a naughty one!” (Rose); “I am awesome, but at the same time, can be a bitch.” (Jacqueline); “The fact that I’m intelligent sets me apart” (Carley).
When not babbling about “fairy-tale endings” and finding their own “Prince Charming,” the women start making waves and marking their territory. When learning that one woman is—gasp!—25, another says, “Oh good, we have another oldie!” and gleefully claps her hands. (In truth, the youngest contestant is 22; the oldest is 26.). Another feels ostracized early on because she doesn’t know what “bronzer” is. The phrase “hashtag-CrazyBitch” is unleashed later in the season. It’s all predictable and humdrum.
Harry is so busy adhering to the usual Bachelor tropes that it fails to adequately explain how these women—“intelligent” Carley included—could actually be fooled by this ruse. It helps that some, like Chelsea, admit that they don’t know what Prince Harry actually looks like. Others that are initially skeptical start changing their tune once security agents (who are actors, of course) pop up on the grounds. But no one is asking the seemingly obvious questions: Why on earth would the real Prince Harry—fourth in line to the British throne—ever participate in a cheesy, degrading reality show like this? (Though I love the prospect of a contestant like Meghan winning his hand and introducing herself to the Queen thusly: “I’m smart, hot, I cook, I clean, I look bangin’ in a bikini; I like the finer things in life.”) And if the guy is not Prince Harry but someone who kinda-sorta looks like him, then what the hell is actually going on here?
Those questions might come up later on, but not in tonight’s premiere, which is largely devoted to Not Harry’s apprehension about pulling it off (“I feel like I could blow this at any point”) and the women’s nerves about interacting with him. “There’s a lot of pressure,” explains one, “because we might be dating Prince Harry.” It builds to a masquerade ball, in which Not Harry and the women don masks and commence flirting. (Shades of Mr. Personality, another infamous Fox reality series from 2003—hosted by Monica Lewinsky!)
Meanwhile, the big threat dangling over the show—that Not Harry might slip up and reveal the truth—is neutralized by his refusal to reveal anything about himself, even his name: “That is for me to know and you to find out,” he tells them. But—aside from amusement over his revulsion to his suitors’ ear-piercing decibel-level (“American girls don’t seem to have inside voices,” he notes)—this all comes across as perfunctory, down to the requisite woman who over-indulges on the first night and becomes a drunken mess.
Instead of upending the genre as Joe Millionaire did, the inert Harry mostly shows how much things have changed since then. Very few Bachelor viewers—despite the efforts of host Chris Harrison—wholly buy into that show’s fairy-tale storyline anymore. The turning point came in 2010, as audiences were exposed to the creepy serial killer vibe given off by Jake “Stop Interrupting Me” Pavelka during his nasty on-air split with “winner” Vienna. Then, there was a near revolt this past Bachelor season, as almost all the women (and even Harrison himself) ultimately turned against Bachelor Juan Pablo Galavis as a result of his douchey behavior both onscreen and off.
Now, many contestants and viewers have realized that the real way to “win” The Bachelor/Bachelorette isn’t by becoming the last suitor standing and getting engaged. Instead, the key is to play your cards right and score the better prize: either become the runner-up who was compelling and beloved enough to be selected as the next Bachelor/Bachelorette, or embrace the villain(ess) persona that’s a direct ticket to getting booked on spinoff shows like Bachelor in Paradise (airing this summer). Continued employment, not true love, has become the real Bachelor allure.
And why not? A recurring accusation on The Bachelor/Bachelorette—and Harry too—is that some contestants aren’t there for the “Right Reasons,” meaning true love. But the 27 completed seasons of the shows (a new Bachelorette just started this week) have resulted in just three marriages among the final couples. So why bother looking for love on the show when you have much greater odds finding fame and semi-fortune? Sorry, but if dodging the Not Harry bullet—and making some money in the process—is Wrong, I don’t want to be Right.
Worst of all, Harry—like Joe—hinges on a single revelation, which won’t unfold until the finale. That simply doesn’t cut it with audiences any longer: The Bachelor owes its improbable longevity to its realization that viewers are interested in much more than just who gets the proposal at the end. The real drama lies in the juicy secrets unveiled during the season: the suitor who secretly has a significant other at home, the one who is flirting with a crew member behind the scenes, the one who breaks the rules and finagles extra time on dates, the one who reduces the Bachelor/Bachelorette to a puddle of tears and makes them question whether they can even go on.
Harry, however, promises none of those scandalous in-season revelations. Unless the show has something sensational in store down the line—perhaps nods to the real Harry’s more infamous moments, like his Nazi costume from 2005, or re-creating his 2012 Vegas strip-billiards escapades—it offers absolutely no reason to tune back in until the final episode, if even then. If you want a hysterical Bachelor satire, check out Jimmy Kimmel’s The Baby Bachelor or the web series Burning Love. Because if you wanna watch Harry, you’ll only get an uninspired retread of a once-revelatory idea.