Television doesn’t offer many direct do-overs, but the producers of “Secret Millionaire” are receiving a second chance — one where not staying secret hinges in part on whether the American mood has changed since December 2008, when Fox’s earlier version flopped. Of course, ABC’s millionaire-as-closet-philanthropist show occupies a more hospitable timeslot by filling in for another feel-good formula, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Like “Undercover Boss,” the underlying hook amounts to a conservative fantasy — namely, that the rich and privileged want nothing more than to help the less fortunate.
Granted, the inspiration actually goes back a lot further than the current financial meltdown. Like so many reality shows, there’s a scripted precedent — here, the 1950s anthology “The Millionaire,” which probed how an unforeseen gift from a mysterious donor might change someone’s life.
Although ABC has wisely toned down Fox’s ostentatious displays of wealth during the intros, the basic template remains the same: A rich businessperson is plucked from his or her happy environs, exposed to “unsung heroes” in impoverished areas, and finally doles out cash totaling around $100,000. Unleash tears, expressions of gratitude and a swell of overbearing music.
The premiere focuses on Dani Johnson, an attractive 41-year-old San Antonio entrepreneur, who helps worthy enterprises assisting the needy in Knoxville. The second hour features San Diego mogul Marc Paskin, banished to Detroit, “a city struggling to survive.” (The narration, by KC Clyde, sounds so absurdly grave and sincere as to resemble the introduction to “Law and Order.”)
What “Secret Millionaire” has no time to explore, conveniently, are the causes of poverty or any larger issues. It is, essentially, all about creating a cathartic experience, where the millionaire’s checks affix band-aids to everything from soup kitchens to kidney-dialysis patients.
Given the economic stress felt all across the U.S., the idea of magical benefactors riding to the rescue certainly possesses some appeal — as does the notion millionaires will happily hand over their extended tax cuts to the needy, while counseling the rest of us (as Johnson and Paskin individually do) regarding the merits of helping as best we can.
For ABC, this boils down to one question: Will that message play better in a different time, on another channel? If so, “Millionaire” could yield at least one unintended consequence — sending network execs, shovel in hand, back to the reality-TV graveyard.