Secret Millionaire has its second season debut tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Considering just how thoroughly the knowledge of basic income inequality in the United States has rocketed through the public consciousness in the past few weeks, it may seem a strange time to be bringing a show about guardian angel millionaires to the air, but even stranger is the path Secret Millionaire took to the screen. Originally a British series (as all American reality shows inevitably are), Fox developed a U.S. version and brought it to the air in December 2008, but it quickly flopped. Now, just over two years later, ABC has resurrected the show, thanks to the success of CBS’ execrable Undercover Boss, hoping that some of that show’s ratings rub off on the formerly challenged Secret Millionaire. It also helps that the show doesn’t feature anything like a host or other elements that would tie episodes together beyond the central concept.
And yet Secret Millionaire is kinda good, much better than Undercover Boss and better executed than the show was in its aborted first season. It’s manipulative as fuck—for God’s sake, it features children with leukemia, and there’s no way to not tear up at that—but in the good way that sentimental pap sometimes can be. I highly doubt I’ll ever watch this again after watching these two episodes, but I found myself frequently enjoying them, and I’m hostile toward this genre. People who really love this kind of TV—heartwarming reality shows that do their best to cover up the fact that America’s problems can’t be solved by a long string of reality shows—are going to eat this stuff up with a spoon and pass out happily on the couch. Manipulative sentimentality, after all, doesn’t have to be bad, if it keeps its eye on the right focus, and Secret Millionaire has its focus on the right people.
The central problem with Undercover Boss is that it makes too much of the focus the journey of the boss, making it seem as though said boss could have no idea that such problems could exist in his organization or that the people working with him could confront such terrible things in their personal lives. At its worst, it makes the CEOs the show scrounges up to star look like oblivious idiots. Even at its best, the show makes them seem like self-important blowhards, sent by God to save the lives of all they touch. Since the focus is always on the boss, it has the uneasy effect of making it seem like the show was about how much better the rich are than the poor or middle class, about how only they can right the wrongs of our society.
For a while, I wondered if this was just my own political biases crowding out all other readings of the program, but, nope, Secret Millionaire 2.0 has come along to show that there IS another way to do it. It’s rare to see arresting narratives about people who struggle monetarily on TV, particularly in the reality genre, where even people with thousands of children are compensated handsomely enough by the network to scrape on by. One of the things I’ve liked about ABC’s reality development of the past few years is that it’s gotten involved in America’s more poverty-stricken communities and not in a condescending or shame-faced way. It simply presents the situation as it is on the ground and lets viewers experience how hard some of their fellow Americans have it for an hour a week. There are no calls to action or anything, but there’s also not a whole bunch of distancing mechanisms designed to reassure viewers that they, themselves, could never fall into such a terrible situation. We’re invited to sympathize and empathize, not look down upon. That can be tricky to do in the reality genre, but ABC has managed it fairly well.
The reason Secret Millionaire 2.0 works where Undercover Boss doesn’t is because it keeps its focus on the various charity organizations scraping by and attempting to make a difference in their communities that the millionaires visit. Take tonight’s premiere, where Dani Johnson (a self-help guru and talk radio host who’s Internet-savvy enough to have the first page of Google results on “Dani Johnson scam” almost entirely redirect to blog posts about how great she is) travels to a poverty-ridden neighborhood of Knoxville, Tenn., to help out as best she can. Dani’s a colorful personality, a Bible verse underlining mother of five and grandmother of three who looks like she could be Connie Britton’s cousin and has a home-spun aphorism about the importance of caring for each other for every occasion, but the focus after she leaves her home is almost entirely on the groups she works with, which include a kitchen fixing meals for those who can’t afford them, a program designed to help kids who can’t afford instruments get musical training, and a small team redecorating the bedrooms of deathly ill children.
All of the groups are doing good work, work that needs more support, and they’re all populated by fascinating folks who saw a niche and found a way to give back on extremely limited budgets. Even if you give 90 percent of your annual salary to charity, just seeing them is going to make you think you’re not doing enough, and that’s exactly the kind of emotion a show like this should be eliciting. It’s the good kind of sentimentality, the kind that comes from realizing that, yeah, good people do exist in this world and are doing their best to make it a better one. The same continues in the second episode sent out to critics, where a real estate investor from San Diego named Marc travels to Detroit and gets surprisingly involved in the community of the little neighborhood he lives in, even though he’s there for but a week.
At the end of every episode, the millionaire reveals themselves as a millionaire and hands out checks that add up to a minimum of $100,000. (In the earlier season, some millionaires went well beyond this minimum, so it’s possible to give more. Hey, donations to charity are tax-deductible!) This part’s where the sappy music rises and the tears are supposed to flow, but it rarely works as well as the scenes where the millionaire just hangs out at the volunteer organizations and gets involved in the work they do. Granted, it’s the franchise of the show, but these scenes become kind of same-y after a while, and there’s an unfortunate air of competition to them. Which groups will the millionaire give the most to? And which will get the least? But the earlier sections with the volunteers are more interesting because they focus on why the volunteers do what they do, why they’re pushed to stretch themselves so far. Everybody’s got a story, and the more Secret Millionaire focuses on that, the better it is.
There are problems with Secret Millionaire. (Each episode tries to do so much that it can feel a little scattered, and the ABC reality division has never met an emotional moment it couldn’t overmilk with dozens of shots of people crying and sappy music rising and so on and so forth.) There are things that still unsettle me about the core premise. (Each episode opens with a lengthy series of shots of all that the millionaire has, then sends us into absolute destitution, and the show doesn’t even seem to realize this is implied commentary on the gap between the haves and have-nots in America, blithely skating by that fact.) But the show isn’t bad, and it does what it does pretty well. It’s good, heartwarming TV, designed to gather the family around on a Sunday night, and by putting the camera on a number of deserving volunteer organizations, maybe it will be that rare TV show that causes good to filter out into the world at large.