Fox’s two-episode launch of “Secret Millionaire” didn’t prove quite as charitable ratings-wise as the network might have hoped, but a solid build in the second hour suggests there might be potential in this hankie-waving, wildly manipulative but undeniably emotional concept.
Granted, the producers overplay their hand, from the too-easy epiphanies that the wealthy participants achieve, to their Little Lord Fauntleroy wardrobes, to the persistent urgency and cloying sweetness of David Vanacore’s music. In “Secret Millionaire’s” world, the rich are benevolent if slightly detached and the poor are simply hard-luck cases helped by angels on Earth, without shades of gray.
The millionaires in the premiere were a father-son and husband-wife act — one dispatched to Imperial Beach, near California’s southern border; the other to Buras, La., an area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. They’re forced to survive on $150 for a week (think Morgan Spurlock’s “30 Days,” divided by four), while deciding how to dole out at least $100,000 of their money to those whom they encounter. The unsuspecting are supposedly told the producers are shooting a documentary about poverty, which sounds suspect, but perhaps best not to over-think these things.
Mostly, the sob stories build toward the big “reveal,” where the millionaires acknowledge they’re not impoverished and hand out checks to the stunned and grateful people they’ve met, unleashing torrents of tears. (A disclaimer notes that “Contributions made on camera may not reflect the actual method of payment,” which is sort of like those bowl-game sponsors posing with oversized checks.)
Typical of the genre, the producers essentially preview the entire series — to the point where you almost feel as if you could quit watching right there — during the first two minutes. Fox plans to air two episodes a week, Wednesday and Thursday, during this maiden run.
Unlike the old drama “The Millionaire,” the series doesn’t fret much about the next logical question, which is how or whether the money can alter lives. It’s good enough for the show’s purposes to see the affluent have their eyes pried open along with their wallets, before returning to their comfortable lives.
If that all seems a bit facile and glib, well, there are still worse things these guys could be doing with $100,000 — and certainly worse things that Fox has been and could be doing with a couple of hours of primetime.