“The Rebel Billionaire” brims with “Fox attitude” — which, in reality parlance, means assembling a concept that borrows from a half-dozen sources, then over-producing and scoring the living hell out of it. Still, the series is compelling enough viewing despite its more ridiculous moments, thanks largely to the steadying presence of Richard Branson, who should send several bouquets to “The Benefactor’s” Mark Cuban for lowering expectations regarding reality TV’s billionaire boys club. That said, even with Fox’s heavy promotion during baseball, “Billionaire” faces a formidable task to avoid becoming another unscripted strikeout.
Among the challenges is that the show’s timeslot pits it against NBC’s modest success “The Biggest Loser” — a more relatable premise than this mish-mash of “Fear Factor,” “The Amazing Race,” “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” which promises to visit 10 countries and five continents.
Determined to one-up Donald Trump (who is mocked near the outset, lest anyone forget the genre’s parentage), Branson states that the winner will become steward of his corporate empire. Of course, absurdly dangerous stunts might sound like a strange way to select a CEO, but it’s probably not that much tougher than working for Barry Diller.
Branson states that 50,000 people applied before being culled down to the magic number of 16. To no one’s surprise, the budding entrepreneurs and accomplished brown-nosers who survived the sifting process are an extremely attractive bunch, ages 24 to 34. As in ABC’s “The Benefactor,” Branson somewhat cruelly dismisses two of them almost before the action begins, though the rationale here is a tad cleverer.
The centerpiece of the opening hour provided critics (a rarity for Fox, which normally keeps its “reality” fare under lock and key) hinges on a high-wire act … literally. A renowned balloonist, Branson takes half the group airborne and has them walk a narrow beam between two balloons, 10,000 feet above the ground.
Yes, the music suggests someone will die at any moment, but there’s still a fair amount of tension that the producers play to the hilt — cashing in on the fact that one contestant, Sarah, claims to have a fear of heights.
To his credit, Branson is no wallflower, clambering up the side of the balloon, and his natural charisma sets the show apart from Cuban’s goofy demeanor or Trump’s well-practiced bluster. So while it’s hard to discern much regarding the contestants’ buzz factor thus far, the knighted tycoon appears to merit his star billing.
From a commercial standpoint, the other wild card here is that “Rebel Billionaire” doesn’t feel particularly rebellious in its reliance on well-worn sources, raising the dreaded “been there, seen that” scenario that has helped scuttle several new arrivals in this fall’s reality logjam. Even the contestants’ supposedly heartfelt ruminations about the experience (“incredible journey,” “here to win,” yadda yadda yadda) have started to bleed together.
Moreover, diminished ratings for “The Apprentice” and “Benefactor’s” rapid burnout make Fox’s entry feel a bit like a Dicky-come-lately, despite being more slickly produced than the latter and more visually resplendent than the former. Fox itself has contributed to this malaise by introducing a parody of the genre, “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss.”
In short, Fox might actually be launching a well-packaged product into a saturated marketplace, an inevitable problem as reality programs multiply and bump into each other. Then again, as Branson could doubtless attest, it’s not always easy to find Virgin territory.