When the reality-show revolution began with 1973’s An American Family, the PBS miniseries about the Loud family, it had noble aspirations. An American Family set out to document the curious customs and rituals of upper-middle-class Americans while at the same time examining how the process of being filmed affects its subjects. Even The Real World was an exercise in pop sociology, an exploration both of what happens when a bunch of strangers stop being polite and start getting real and, on a more implicit level, a study of how fame, celebrity, and being in the public eye affects young people.
The nature of reality television in these United States began to shift dramatically with the game-changing 2003 debut of a show called Joe Millionaire. The show’s premise was as simple as it was odious. A group of women competed to win the heart of a strapping slab of man-meat they had been assured was a millionaire. The catch was that the man at the center of the show wasn’t a millionaire at all, but rather a beefy lunk named Evan Marriott who, in a hilarious twist, was actually broke as fuck. Joe Millionaire was also an experiment of sorts, except that instead of being sociological in nature it was more of an exercise in humiliation, degradation, and exploitation.
The infamous, Ryan Seacrest-produced 2014 reality dating competition I Wanna Marry “Harry” is a direct descendant of Joe Millionaire, only crueler. Instead of competing to win the heart of a simple millionaire, the women were told they were competing for the love of bona fide royalty, Prince Harry. After being ridiculed out of existence in 2014, the show recently limped back into the spotlight when “winner” Kimberly Birch, an actress who was never identified on the show as an actress (because that might suggest something a little fake about the fake-prince show) did a riveting interview about the “brainwashing” process the show subjected its cast to.
In the most compelling part of the interview, Birch spoke of the ridiculous extent the show went to in order to keep up its charade, saying, “They actually had a therapist come on set at one point and talk to a few of us who were saying it wasn’t [Prince Harry]. We found out later that it wasn’t a real, licensed therapist. It was just someone from the production team.” According to Birch, the fake psychologist said of the suspicions they might nurse about the identity of the fake prince, “You have to learn how to trust your mind. I understand that you’re in a different country, and you don’t know what’s going on, but you have to trust the people here. It’s not good for you to keep questioning.”
The luckless women competing on Joe Millionaire were posited as gold-diggers out to score a rich man—a believable conceit for a reality show. The women of I Wanna Marry “Harry” are not just posited as gold-diggers out to score a fairy-tale prince, but also women naive enough to believe that one of the most famous, rich, and glamorous royals alive would choose a life partner through the same process with which Flavor Flav and Bret Michaels choose which groupies to swap STDs with.
I Wanna Marry “Harry” borrows the retrograde gender stereotypes of Joe Millionaire and adds some international ones. The British/American divide heightens the archetypes at play. The men here (essentially the fake prince, his butler and right-hand man Kingsley, and a fake security detail) come off as reserved, dignified, and a tacky reality-show conception of “classy.” The girls are gaudy caricatures of ugly Americans who embody the familiar types found on just about every reality show: the Quirky Girl, The Sexpot, The Southern Belle, The New Yorker, The Mean Girl, The Drunk Girl Who’s Also Really Mean, and of course The Black Girl who gets eliminated quickly. (In a twist, the show’s black contestant took herself out of the running relatively late in the show.)
The show didn’t just seek American girls; it sought out girls who lived up to the world’s conception of Americans as tacky, greedy, ignorant, and horny. It’s as if the producers asked the contestants, in their opening spiels, to tell everybody how great they were in ways that would make everybody hate them, and to be sure to throw in something about what a crazy nightmare they are if they think it’ll help their case.
Within the world of dating reality competitions, the insult most bandied about is that some sinister schemer is doing the show for the “wrong reasons”—that they’re there to make money, get famous, and embrace surreal experiences rather than find true love. To me, going on a show to make money, build your brand, and have crazy adventures is exactly the right reason to do reality television. You’re a lot more likely to experience those things from doing a show like The Bachelor or Joe Millionaire than you are to find true, lasting love. Even if you win one of those shows, the chances of you staying together are slim, which is not surprising given the blatantly artificial and manipulative nature of these shows.
I would have a lot more respect for Matthew Hicks, the show’s fake Prince Harry, if he had conceded that he was doing the show because the opportunity to be on television, briefly live the life of a royal, and have 12 sexy women fight for his romantic affections (and hopefully make out with him a good deal in the process) was simply too good for an ordinary bloke like himself to pass up. Instead, he too has to pretend that, in the time-honored tradition of reality shows, he’s in it for the “right reasons,” to find true love and not sordid tabloid fame.
This charade requires an intense tolerance for cognitive dissonance and Orwellian doublespeak. Hicks wants to find true love by perpetuating an enormous lie. He wants to be loved and accepted for who he “really is” by pretending, with the help of a television crew, to be somebody who is more or less his opposite. He wants girls to be open, honest, and candid in their interactions with him, and he leads the way by deliberately and purposefully being vague, obfuscatory, and evasive. Looking back, it’s remarkable that Hicks’ brain did not explode from violent internal contradictions.
Though its premise takes the deceitful manipulativeness of reality television to sordid new lows, I Wanna Marry “Harry” should otherwise feel very familiar to veteran viewers of reality dating competitions like The Bachelor. It shares a visual and storytelling vocabulary with its more respectable reality-television peers, a glossy emptiness filled with manufactured drama and endless padding and repetition.
Hicks comes off about as well as possible given the circumstances, but his weird role here speaks to a strange contradiction in dating reality shows. On a superficial level, Hicks is made to look as glamorous and romantic and appealing as possible, to be the romance novel prince the ladies are pining for. He wears beautiful clothes, travels via helicopter, stays in a palatial estate, and charms his way through a series of exotic dream dates in colorful places.
Yet the show also demands that he consistently behave in an unsympathetic manner and do things that would rightly piss people off in real life. The show requires him to string a bunch of women along, cultivate and manipulate a harem desperate to be his betrothed, make out with a bunch of contestants who all know each other and are comparing notes, end his relationships with every woman on the show but one, and pretend that he’s earnestly seeking permanent true love instead of momentary fame. The show is cynical enough to hope that audiences will focus on the surface romance and not the ugly calculation lying just underneath. The challenge for audiences and the contestant alike is to find Hicks so appealing that we’re willing to overlook both the central creepiness of his participation in the show and the never-ending string of jerky things he’s forced to do. I’m not sure anyone alive is that appealing.
As with The Bachelor, Hicks spends a lot of time discussing his “chemistry” with contestants, which is really just a more diplomatic way of saying, “I wanted to have sex with this person immediately, and spending time with them did not change that desire.” He clearly wants to have sex with all of the contestants, and as the show progresses he grows into the role largely out of a desire to keep making out with women he concedes would be way out of his league in the real world. In the stammeringly awkward early episodes, he clearly struggles to maintain both the illusion that he’s Prince Harry and also the fundamental mystery of that identity. The show is deliberately vague until halfway through, when the girls are told that they are competing for Prince Harry. Eventually that awkwardness gives way to a new confidence as the role he’s playing increasingly gets under his skin.
I Wanna Marry “Harry” is not entirely devoid of entertainment value. There are a few moments when the culture clash reaches surreal levels of shamelessness and the show lives up to its potential for guilty pleasure (with an emphasis on the guilt). The unrelenting fighting and character assassination among the contestants (much of it focused, predictably enough, on suspicions that various girls are not there for the “right reasons”) quickly grows tiresome, but it is pretty hilarious to see one particularly nasty girl repeatedly insist that the token sloppy drunk’s penchant for perpetual sloppy drunkenness renders her, in a turn of phrase that would have become a catchphrase had the show taken off, “not princess material.”
This contestant apparently spied a bleak future where the Queen would look distastefully through opera glasses at the sloppy drunk Princess doing beer bongs upside-down on the Buckingham Palace lawn while her subjects looked on aghast. And I grudgingly admit that I laughed more than once during a wet and wild pool party where the girls expressed open-mouthed shock and delight that, through a bizarre twist of fate, they now found themselves twerking up a storm within groping distance of the Prince Of Wales. But for the most part, I Wanna Marry “Harry” fails as both cheap comedy and cruel melodrama. It asks us to laugh at characters and feel for them, but gives us little reason to do either. It’s equally hopeless and misconceived as a misanthropic satire of American stupidity and vulgarity and as an exercise in unconventional romance.
It’s worth noting that while the show pats itself on the back for pulling off an audacious hoax, multiple women figure out that the fake prince is bogus. Contestant Rose, who is condescendingly introduced as a naughty little 22-year-old schoolteacher rocking sexy underwear under her conservative school attire, proves to be the savviest of the bunch. The moment she confronts Hicks is genuinely riveting. In that moment, the whole idiotic and insulting ruse dissipates and the bracing cruelty of the show rushes to the surface.
Throughout the show, the women have been dealing with two kinds of extreme power imbalances. First, one man has the power to send any woman home if she displeases him in any way, or even if he just thinks the chemistry isn’t there. But there’s also the power imbalance endemic in one party ostensibly being one of the richest, most famous human beings alive and the contestants being chosen specifically because they’re “normal” people, unremarkable beyond their conventionally attractive good looks and desperation to do anything to be on television. It’s one thing to be rejected by someone genuinely impressive, but it has to be infinitely harder to be publicly rejected by someone merely pretending to be someone genuinely impressive as part of an elaborate ruse with you, your emotions, and your romantic desire as the mean-spirited punchlines. In the unbearable intensity of this moment, Hicks doesn’t come off as blandly oafish and overwhelmed, but rather creepy and disingenuous, a hapless sap roped into an insulting charade who is getting off on a sense of power and control he did nothing to merit. The ridiculous double standard is never more galling than when Hicks dismisses Rose by saying, “I didn’t feel she was completely genuine,” despite being the least genuine reality show character this side of Joe Millionaire.
Network television audiences did not get to see the conclusion of I Wanna Marry “Harry”—they didn’t even get to see shit get real. Due to low ratings and scathing reviews, the show was canceled after only four episodes, and Fox burned off the final four online. So it was only the morbidly curious who learned that a mousy, lovably vulnerable social worker from New York shared the $250,000 prize with Hicks for “loving” “Harry” for the “right reasons”—she only needed to claim she still liked him after learning his true identity.
On one level, the show succeeded in what it set out to do. Hicks ended up not with the sexiest or flashiest or most dramatic contestant, but the nicest and most grounded. The two keep in contact to this day, albeit on a platonic rather than romantic level. Hicks got a nice girl who liked him for the “right reasons,” but his victory could not ring more hollow or empty. And the biggest losers here were audiences who got to watch the world of pop culture become a little meaner, a little stupider, and a little more vulgar by virtue of one mind-bogglingly ill-conceived show’s short run.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure
Up next: The Counselor