I don't generally believe in guilty pleasures. I get why the term exists. I understand that most people have one or two shows or movies or books they return to again and again because they derive pleasure from them, even though they understand their virtues aren't exactly obvious. But maybe it's because I think too hard about everything, but I tend to come up with justifications for why I like things. I've heard any number of TV shows I genuinely love - like Parenthood or Cougar Town or - perish the thought! - Community - described as guilty pleasures, but I could talk your ear off about exactly why I like every one of those shows, why their virtues are unimpeachable, and why you should start watching them. Granted, this is a good thing in my chosen profession, but it makes me a real bore at dinner parties.
But even I will admit that there is basically no way The Millionaire Matchmaker can be enjoyed on anything other than a guilty pleasure level. It's the one show I gleefully look forward to every week while still finding it to be so, so bad for me on almost every level. Filled with regressive sexual politics and oddly proud of it, The Millionaire Matchmaker is further evidence that beneath the surface of most reality shows beats a heart that would really rather return to the ossified cultural politics of the early 20th century. The titular matchmaker, Patti Stanger, will hook up anyone - straight or gay, man or woman - so long as they have enough money to join her "millionaire's club," but she's going to tell them exactly what she thinks of their picks and also inform them of their proper role within the relationship, a role that's often old-fashioned to a fault. Stanger, unlike most matchmaking show stars in TV's history, will hook up a gay millionaire with the (usually younger) man of his dreams, but that man will probably come with weirdly submissive tendencies and a butter churn.
Unfortunately, Patti has packed up her entire operation and moved it to New York City this season. Usually, a move like this is spurred by slumping ratings, though in the reality world a location change often occurs to freshen up the contestant pool. I have no idea what the ratings are for The Millionaire Matchmaker. It could be canceled tomorrow, and I wouldn't bat an eye. But I'm not sure this move to New York will either save it or enliven a franchise that's been growing staid, simply because Stanger's weird belief in some fundamental code of love that will improve any relationship seems so much better suited to the sunny beaches of California - where dupes will believe any old shit - than the stereotypically cynical streets of New York. Patti herself probably says it best when she says that dating in New York is tough, and she doesn't know if she'll be able to hack it. Indeed, in the season premiere, both couples she introduces to each other fall apart, despite all of the effort she tosses into them.
This episode's male millionaire is Derek "Unfortunate Last Name" Tabacco, a self-made man who describes his wealth as coming from "about four" Web sites, real estate holdings, and some other stuff. (The other stuff isn't spelled out, so you're free to imagine the salacious details, if you like.) Derek, like every other man who's ever been on this show ever, is tired of dating much younger women who are nothing more than walking breasts and wants to find someone who will be much closer to his wifely ideal, someone who sounds a lot like a mother who will exchange witty repartee with him and then have sex with him. Dutifully, Patti lines up a bunch of women who more or less fit that description, as well as a few younger women, who are more like the women he used to date. Predictably, he narrows his choices to two: a woman who is obviously better for him than anyone he has dated before and a much younger, much hotter woman. Of course he picks the younger woman. Why do you have to ask? This is a show about the all-encompassing power of the penis.
The episode also boasts a female millionaire (or "millionairess," which tells you everything you need to know about the show's sexual politics right there), an unfortunate young mother named Bryce, who seems as if she hasn't cracked a smile since she learned being heir to the Dannon yogurt fortune (and who knew there was a Dannon yogurt fortune?) meant she could spend her days lounging around her apartment and working on the 21st century equivalent of a shitty 'zine, a shitty Web site (hers is for women who like the finer things but seems mostly curated just for her). The father of Bryce's baby was 50, while she's 26. That he high-tailed it from a much younger woman who'd had his child and had gotten plenty of money without even lifting a finger says everything Patti and her friends need to know, and much of their advice to her basically boils down to the speech Marge Simpson gives to Lisa in "Moaning Lisa," where she advises her to just pretend to be happy and squash the bad feelings all the way down.
Both Derek and Bryce play successfully off of standard New York City stereotypes. But while Derek's storyline - about how he slowly realizes that the much younger woman he picked is wrong for him on a number of levels - is a Millionaire Matchmaker classic tale, Bryce's storyline - which involves her hooking up with a Bronx school teacher named Keith who gamely tries to make her laugh, talk, or do anything that might indicate she's enjoying herself - is some of the most painful television I've ever seen. I'm not one who cringes at "cringe humor," nor am I a person who's too bothered by extreme violence or anything like that. But Bryce and Keith's date made me want to throw up, early and repeatedly. It's a collection of every bad date any person has ever been on, as Keith lobs would-be pick-up lines into the ether and Bryce stares at him stonily, practically daring him to break the drudgery that is having money because someone on your family tree figured out how to mix fruit into tangy cream.
The essence of Millionaire Matchmaker - the initial meetings with the millionaires, the auditions of potential dates, the weird sexual politics, the strange cattle call mixers - is still present in New York, but it feels as if the show is still finding its legs on the other coast. In particular, the show has often been good in the past about finding a number of interesting potential matches for the millionaires, then letting us watch as those matches are winnowed down and winnowed down. In this episode, the show has to struggle to make most of the potential Derek matches notable, and the potential Bryce matches are more notable in terms of their attempts to get her to break her stony reserve. Faced with this predicament, the show simply starts throwing oddballs at the camera, like a 50-year-old atheist who calls his church one of the mind and some old Spanish Cuban guy who stumbled in off the street.
Backed into a corner by all of this, the show turns to tensions between Patti and her staff, especially between Patti and a new intern. But the staff has never been as interesting as Patti, a woman who's uniquely made for reality television because she overreacts to everything, yet also seems to believe everything your mother did when she was a girl. The Millionaire Matchmaker is so horrifying because it seems to boil everything down to a checklist that starts with the question of whether you're hot enough for the millionaire or not, then continues on with Patti's weird attempts to hook every man up with a younger, boobsier version of their mom. And yet, when you come right down to it, the appeal of the show is that, always, lurking in the back of even the most liberal viewer's head, there's the simple thought that maybe she's right, that maybe personality has nothing to do with it, that maybe, when you come right down to it, all any of us wants is someone who will hold us gently, stroke our hair, tuck us into bed, then screw our brains out.