Why Joe Millionaire Flopped

Monday, November 24, 2003

By Alan Sepinwall

Early in the debut episode of Fox's "The Next Joe Millionaire," a caption boasted, "They said we couldn't do it again."

And they were right. Fox couldn't.

As ill-advised flop sequels go, this was "The Godfather, Part III," "Superman IV" and "Jaws: The Revenge" all rolled into one. The original "Joe" finished with one of the most-watched hours of TV entertainment in years. The new "Joe," which limps to the finish line tonight at 8, is drawing barely 6 million viewers a week.

What were Fox execs thinking? Really. It's one thing for them to have taken a flier on another "Joe," on the off-chance they might catch lightning in a bottle twice. But they didn't just commission a sequel. They built their entire fall season around it, scheduling it twice a week, placing the network's most promising new drama, "Skin," after it and devoting most of its World Series promotional muscle to hyping "Joe."

So why did no one want a ticket for the new "Joe," which featured simpleton cowboy David Smith trying to put one over on a group of catty European beauties? Let's count the ways:

You can't copy a copy: The original "Joe" was just a "Bachelor" rip-off with a nasty twist: Lead slab of beef Evan Marriott was really a dirt-poor construction worker (and part-time underwear model) posing as a wealthy heir. Clones of popular hits almost never work -- see all the failed imitators of "Friends," "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor" -- but the gimmick of the big lie was enough to overcome that problem. Once.

We hate Europe: No one at Fox expected the original "Joe" to become such a smash, so work didn't begin on the sequel until almost everyone in America got to know Evan and loyal butler Paul Hogan. Barring another radical shift in format, they couldn't do another "Joe" in these here parts. So Paul, David and the crew had to fly off to Europe and recruit a gaggle of international party girls.

But Fox execs should know better than anyone that European shows are a tough sell to American couch potatoes. The network flopped two seasons in a row with Britain-based dramas "American Embassy" and "Keen Eddie," and everyone on those shows spoke English as a first language. The new women of "Joe" had such thick accents that most of their dialogue had to be subtitled. And if there's anything many Americans dislike more than shows set in foreign countries, it's shows and movies where they have to read as they watch.

We hate too much hype: After all those World Series promos failed to produce any audience for "Joe" or "Skin," there was a lot of talk in the media about how baseball fans aren't the type of people who would watch a reality show like "Joe" or a soap like "Skin."

But hard-core baseball fans aren't the only ones who watch the playoffs, especially this year, when the presence of the Red Sox and Cubs sent the ratings through the roof. There were easily several million potential "Joe" viewers watching those games and Fox's nonstop commercials for the show.

And that's the problem. Fox was so aggressive, so obnoxious in the amount of time spent pushing "Joe," both between innings and during the actual games, that a lot of those potential viewers got sick of the series before it even started. Just as Ron Silver's cry of "His father is the district attorney!" during the "Skin" ads was repeated so often that it became a sad joke, so was the bit where one of the "Joe" women boasted, "And for the best part... he's riiiiiich!"

We hated the way the last "Joe" ended. The biggest obstacle at the start of the new "Joe" was the horrific way the original ended. First there was the bait-and-switch clip episode the week before the finale, when viewers had been led to believe they would get an all-new hour. And the finale itself was unbearably padded and then anticlimactic, to boot. After Evan chose good girl Zora over obvious gold-digger Sara, he and his "love" (who was so obviously repulsed by the guy that she barely wanted to get within 5 feet of him) were each given half a million bucks as a reward for their decency.

The surprise grand prize completely undercut the whole premise of the show and was a sad attempt to transform an elaborate practical joke into some kind of fairy tale.

After a finish like that, why would anyone have wanted to come back for more?

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