It’s hard to over-exaggerate just how big of a phenomenon “Joe Millionaire” was in 2003. Part of the early “Outlandish Age” of reality TV — particularly under the watch of then-Fox alternative boss Mike Darnell — “Joe Millionaire” set ratings records for an unscripted series, some of which still stand to this day.
“Joe Millionaire” ended its finale with nearly 40 million viewers tuning in to catch its big reveal — in which an unsuspecting woman discovered that the wealthy man she was dating was more hundredaire than millionaire. After the sequel fizzled, however, the franchise was shelved and sat dormant for nearly two decades. Until now.
The new series “Joe Millionaire: For Richer or Poorer,” which premieres in January, follows two men: One wealthy, one not so much. As they date 20 women — who know just one “Joe” is a millionaire, but don’t known who — the goal is to find true love while also learning whether wealth vs. personality wins out. (Unlike in the original, there’s no cash prize.)
From the moment Fox alternative entertainment president Rob Wade joined the network in 2017, he had an eye on a “Joe Millionaire” revival. But first, Wade had to make sure Fox still owned the rights to the franchise — given that some network properties were a part of the Disney acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets and some weren’t. But development hinged on an even larger question: What should “Joe Millionaire” even be in this modern age?
“We knew we couldn’t just bring back a remake of the original, that wouldn’t work,” Wade says. “Obviously, the big surprise was gone. I also felt like that kind of surprise is very particular to a certain era. And that kind of era is probably gone in TV. So we had to find a way of reimagining the format by putting a twist on it, which was going to be fresh, and also really importantly, sustainable.”
Wade and his team came up with four or five different twists on the format. That’s and his team called 495 Prods.’ SallyAnn Salsano (“Jersey Shore”) to help flesh out the ideas they had come up with — and to choose the winning concept.
Salsano says when she was approached, “My jaw dropped. I was such a fan. I could name the cast. If you think about it, it turned everything on its head. It was super honest, and it has those moments that you were like, ‘Oh my God!’” The new version, she promises, “has equally ‘WTF’ moments. But I think it’s done in a way that is kind of like where the country is right now. We’re not lying to anyone. They don’t know everything, and there are twists and turns along the way that even the audience won’t know until they come up. But I would say not a big ‘gotcha.’ And that was important to all of us, to not make it a big ‘gotcha.’”
“Joe Millionaire: For Richer or Poorer” was shot on a large estate in Georgia, with the 20 women living in a mansion and the two Joes — Kurt, 32, a construction CEO from Charlotte, N.C., and Steven, 27, a farming CEO from Gallatin, Mo. — in a nearby residence on the same property. Just like in the original, a “butler” helps facilitate the action: This time it’s actor, musician and Rod Stewart impersonator Martin Andrew, who is there to explain the action and serve as a bit of an adviser for both the Joes and the women.
When the women first arrive, they believe they’ll be competing for the attention of one man. But soon they learn there are two Joes, and they’re informed of the twist. (Yes, both have the title “CEO,” but only one is loaded.) “They found out quickly that they had twice the chances of falling in love,” Salsano says. “And the reason why personally I love that is because normally it’s like, ‘Here’s this person — fall in love with them.’ This means that the guys have to work hard as well. They had to put the effort forward because there was someone else there for them to compete [with] and now you’re giving the ladies a choice.”
Casting proved to be a challenge for Salsano and company: Not only did her team need to find the right men to play the Joes, but they needed a millionaire who really was wealthy, and not just on paper. (Fox was burned in 2000 when it turned out “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” star Rick Rockwell turned out not to be loaded.)
“About 90% to 95% of the people that told us they were millionaires that we spent hours and thousands of dollars putting through background checks would come up not rich at all, once you added up their debt,” Salsano says.
But even once the team identified candidates to serve as the two Joes, it was also important to Salsano that the guys were in it for the right reasons (to use a reality TV cliché). And they needed to have chemistry with each other. Beyond its dating aspect, the show also explores how these two men deal with wooing the same women while also living together.
“This is not a show where two grown men are fighting,” Salsano says. “It’s a little bit more of what I call ‘Bro Millionaire.’ These are two guys that are commiserating about being a dude. I think it breaks the mold, and it messes with the format in kind of a way where I believe it feels less stagey. I love their interaction. You could also see their wheels turning.”
Add in COVID-19 protocols, and “even when you’re finding the right people, you know that one twist of bad luck and this person won’t turn up on the Saturday morning that you need them to,” Wade says. “And although they were 20 women, each person is hand-picked. It’s not like you can just put anyone in there. We spent over a year casting it.”
As the show progresses, dates vary from elaborate to basic, such as helicopter rides over waterfalls versus dinners at Chili’s. “I think one of the things that we really did to make it a more real-life experience is to make sure that dates mirror both,” Salsano says. “Of course, there are fantasy elements and it’s over the top and it’s beautiful and it’s aspirational. But there’s also dates that are very down to earth, that an average gentlemen would do on a regular relationship. Even the foods that were served sometimes are high and low. The girls were always like, ‘He ate that. What does that mean? Guys without money wouldn’t even know what that is!’ or ‘He must be rich because he likes that!’ We had little Easter eggs and clues that were there for the girls to try and gameplay.”
Women are eliminated each week — sometimes by agreement from both Joes and sometimes through other means. And although Wade and Salsano aren’t ready to reveal how it ends, Wade does say that “at the end, we really wanted a significant commitment to be the end of the show. And I wanted it to feel like this could be a forever moment. Obviously we don’t want to do spoilers on the ending but I feel like we got that as well.”
The show’s women didn’t have access to Google or other devices once in the mansion, which prevented them from trying to find out who the Joes really are. “And what actually helped us too was the fact that our COVID guidelines were over the top,” Salsano says. “So we had everybody in a pre-bubble before the show bubbles, so they had no access to stuff in the pre-bubble as well.”
Wade says that even though the new show takes the name ‘Joe Millionaire’ and continues the conceit surrounding wealth, he believes ‘For Richer or For Poorer’ is its own type of format “and it plays to the idea that this is 20 years later. So TV’s moved on. And quite frankly, dating has moved on and the world’s moved on and we have to keep up with that.”
Could yet another “Joe Millionaire” iteration be in the works should this one hit? “We’ve already started talking about other things that we can do moving forward,” Wade says. “There are ways of updating formats and giving them the ability to come back year after year. That’s our hope for ‘Joe Millionaire,’ we think it’s got the potential to be a return format.”