November 4, 2003
Average Joe vs. Joe Millionaire
As one of the participants astutely points out, the contestants on Average Joe quickly divide into two familiar groups: "the thinkers and the drinkers." Before the first episode is even half over, the men seek refuge in the company of the similar. The overbearing frat boys hang out at the pool getting wasted and doing cannonballs while the nerds retreat to the living room to bond and strategize. When they meet Melana as a group, the show becomes an object lesson in survival of the fittest. The big brutish aggressors drag her off for some "alone time" of grunting and chest-beating, while the nerds group up and tout their friend's virtues to her. While the drinkers engage in the usual bar-side banter ("So you're a dancer?") the thinkers hang back ("I haven't been this nervous since the climbing the rope in gym class") and observe. When finally given the chance to talk with her one on one, they come out with an unpracticed method of flirting that is at once charming and bizarre. "Do you like broccoli?" Tareq asks pointedly. "How about peas?" His follow-up is this bit of self-revelation: "I am not fascinated by green food." The two worlds collide memorably when the biggest brute of them all -- Zach, a salesman (surprise!) from New York (surprise!)-- comes from nowhere to smash an egg over the head of the Marc, the smallest nerd. This act, as one of the other nerds notes, has the effect of "dehumanizing" him.
In a sense, the show dehumanizes all of them. It takes away any kind of natural social environment and pits them against each other in a rigorously controlled, tightly scripted setting that is controlled by people (producers) with a vested interest in conflict. We meet them as caricatures of themselves, and given the "us vs. them" set-up, it's hard for them to be anything else in the company of each other. It's a brilliant concept for a show, but you can't help but feel sorry for the little guys, whose competitive instincts don't seem particularly well-honed. As you watch the hard-drinking frat boys spill drinks over themselves and slur their words at Melana, you're reminded of how much like the other primates we really are: We win the right to mate by getting noticed. Can't say I disagree, but it's a little sickening to see this play out in primetime, especially as the show's editors make the link explicit from time to time, as when they show one of the drinkers stuffing his face into some kind of nacho dip and ravishing in it -- captured from just the right angle and broadcast to millions -- a craven synthesis of the primal and the technical.
Melana keeps insisting that she's willing to give everybody a fair shot, and will be "fair" and make her judgments based on personality and charm, and I think we want her to. At the same time, can we really blame her for being a bit let down? She seems so happy when Mike, a handsome "Bachelor"-type guy, steps out of a stretch limo (as if he were a dream come true), only to be disappointed ("I wish you could stay! I wish you could stay!") when it turns out he is not actually a contestant and is just there to introduce her to the average Joes, each of whom moons over her in the same way she swoons for Mike. "You're so beautiful!" we hear over and over again, as each guy acts like he's never seen a pretty girl before. And, among the other guys, they keep repeating "She's so hot! She's so hot!" After hearing almost nothing but comments about her looks for a few minutes, you begin to realize a certain irony about the men in this show: they complain about how girls are not interested in them because of their looks, but then when they meet a girl, all they can talk about is her appearance. In other words, their behavior makes them complicit with the same social mechanism that discriminates against them. This puts Melana in a bit of an awkward and unwinnable position: to look like a nice person, she has to be "fair" to them and ignore their appearance, while they are free to obsess over hers. Again, a great concept for a show, but an unfair one.
Meanwhile, over on Joe Millionaire, Cowboy Dave finds himself in what seems to be a similarly unwinnable position. Linda, the Czech model whom he seems to have a legitimate connection with, can't bear the pressure the other girls are putting on her to leave the show. She admits that she is easily influenced by other people and nervous about what other people think about her, and she eventually folds, asking David (in front of the other girls) to eliminate her from his life. In the immediate context of the show, you can sort of see the pressure mounting on her, but after some reflection, it's unclear exactly why she felt compelled to escape. David starts to like and pay attention to her, and this causes some jealousy among the other girls, jealousy that Linda can't handle. But isn't the whole point of the show to develop a mutual interest in the guy? So exactly what negative thoughts could anyone have about her? She won David's heart? Big deal. She was far less conniving and shallow than the other girls, but seems too timid even to follow her heart for a few days, leaving it up to David to ultimately make her choice for her...which he does, in the show's most agonizing moment so far. As I watched David prepare to make his decision, I was hoping -- for his sake and for Linda's -- that he would see there was a solution to this problem: eliminate the girls who were causing the most problems for Linda, thereby relieving most of the pressure on her and keeping her around to get to know better. It seems like this whole problem might have been avoided, however, had David had the opportunity to just pull her aside and tell her how much he likes her and ask her to hang on for a few more days until the other girls could be sent away. But the invisible hand of the producers intervened, apparently, and they were left without this chance or the chance to be together.
Without Linda, David is left with a bunch of girls whom he doesn't seem particularly interested in, and two of whom -- Olinda and Cat -- seem a thousand times more wily and malicious than he does. That's bad for him. But worse for us is that with his one chance for true love out of the picture, we will miss the opportunity to discover whether two people from such unrelated backgrounds -- in this case a poor cowboy and a Czech model -- can fall in love if given the opportunity.
So that leaves Average Joe. Will Melana fall for the thinkers or the drinkers? If the scenes from next week are any indication, it seems like the "look-at-me" crowd has taken an early advantage. Melana seems like the type who is used to a stronger personality, but like I said last week and as we all have learned, on this sort of show, the rule of thumb is clearly "You never know."
But even if Melana does become interested in any of the guys, the show may be rigged against them in a way they haven't even begun to figure out yet: it seems to be that the surprising twist this show is destined to take is that just as Melana starts connecting with some of the guys, the producers will introduce a bunch of hot guys into the environment, and then we'll really see how far personality will get you.