So much hype in `reality' programming

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2000

In those ever-so-romantic split-seconds of courtship, Rick Rockwell told his bride, ``It's not fair that you didn't get to ask me all those questions, and I didn't get put on the spot.''

Well, I'll drink to that.

But standing there in a bridal gown and a state of shock, Darva Conger would never have thought of asking Rick, ``Did you ever smack a girlfriend?'' ``Does your `elevator' go all the way up to the top floor?''

This was a match made in Fox-land. When ``Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire'' ended with vows, a dismayed sociologist said that you ``could hear Western civilization crumbling.'' The combo beauty pageant and marital stunt had grabbed a staggering audience of 23 million, including one out of every four women between the ages of 18 and 39. But Western civ has survived a lot more than this. Heck, it survived Charles and Di.

Anyone with the jaundiced eye of a practiced observer or the practiced eye of a jaundiced observer knew there would be a second act, a postnuptial disagreement. As Cher once said, ``The trouble with some women is that they get all excited about nothing - and then marry him.''

Still, who would have believed that while the shine was still on the $35,000 diamond ring and the bloom still on the Isuzu and the couple still on the two-room, chaperoned honeymoon cruise, a Web site would uncover a nine-year-old restraining order from the groom's former fiancee? Her handwritten complaint said that Rockwell ``threw me around and slapped and hit me in my face'' and ``recently...said he would find me and kill me'' and, oh yes, that ``his elevator doesn't go all the way to the top floor.''

Now some alleged galpals and dates suggested that the, um, multimillionaire with the two broken toilets in the backyard of his 1,200-square-foot house in Encinitas, Calif., was a cheap date with wandering hands. Rockwell denies it all. But the folks at Fox who were counting their money - How to be a Multi-Billionaire! - not only canceled the rerun but the sequels.

And the distraught TV bride who suffered from immediate buyer's remorse said, ``I'm just a girl who works in an emergency room who made a mistake.''

Before we score one for Western civ, let's get back to reality here. There have always been arranged marriages, always been women who marry for money and men who marry for beauty. Along with modern romance we still have mail-order brides, green-card nuptials and dating services as inquisitive as any yenta.

Admittedly, it's hard to imagine trusting Fox as a matchmaker. C-SPAN maybe, but Fox? They can't even find Ally McBeal a husband. All those weeks of checking and they didn't see the holes in the resume of a sometime stand-up comic, who once had a part in ``Killer Tomatoes Strike Back.''

But the bizarre part of this story isn't in matchmaking. Nor is it the willingness of too many women to strut their stuff and promise marriage for money, fantasy, or TV exposure. It's marriage as entertainment. It's relationship TV.

In the ancient days we sent men into the coliseum to be eaten by lions for the public fun of it. Now we invite women to the green room and the altar for the fun of it.

We don't call it humiliation. We call ``reality programming.'' Once upon a time, ``Queen for a Day'' starred ordinary folks crowned with tears. Now the Jerry Springer types invite families to fall apart in public. We have women duking it out over Mr. Wrong. We have couples invited to date others and break up. We have the Jenny Jones debacle when the surprised object of a gay man's affection turned murderer.

There is one show in the works that will track the lives of 10 strangers confined to a house for 100 days. There's another that will have a cast of real people dropped on an island and voted out one by one until there's a ``survivor.''

What we are seeing is the hucksterism of human emotions. Once promoters got up a crowd to see Houdini get untied or watch Evel Knievel leap over a string of cars. Death-defying acts. The new extreme sport tests and toys with human emotions.

I don't know if Darva was a hoper or a gold digger. I don't know if Rick was a show-off or a dangerous phony. In this faux marriage, they came back from the cruise to two separate homes and huge stake-out crews of media.

But the creator of this show, Mike Darnell, came up with the marriage-for-money pageant after he asked himself a question, ``What is it that people wish for? They want a good relationship.'' He put together love and money saw more money.

Before he got into marriage, Darnell had the idea of crashing an empty 747 into the desert. This time he sent ``reality programming'' down in flames.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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