On Sunday ABC premiered its new philanthropic reality series Secret Millionaire. A conceptual cousin to Undercover Boss, each episode features a member of the super-rich going undercover to scout out charities for possible televised donations. Needless to say, I have mixed feelings about the show, which formerly aired on Fox in 2008. While it’s admirable that ABC is giving deserving non-profit organizations much-needed publicity that they wouldn’t receive otherwise, the narrative impulse of the series—based largely around rich folks encountering the less fortunate—reveals much about how lacking our national dialogue on poverty remains.
We all know that television specializes in presenting images of prosperity. It’s been speculated that the abundance of series featuring characters who are lawyers, doctors, and other comfortably-settled professionals is almost a form of subtle brainwashing, on behalf of the advertisers of those shows, to inspire young viewers to achieve financial success…and become better consumers. Secret Millionaire, for all its good intentions, plays into the same game. The premiere last night focused on Dani Johnson, a former welfare recipient who started her own business at age 21 out of the trunk of her car and became a millionaire within two years. “I boot-strapped it, baby!” she gloats early in the episode.
The message is clear: through hard work and determination, you can accomplish anything, regardless of your educational opportunities or social circumstances. In fact, there’s really no excuse for you not to become a millionaire, as long as you’re willing to “boot-strap it” (baby). Far from being a safety net for those struggling to get on their feet, welfare is portrayed as a shameful hell that should be rejected. Rather, the kindness of strangers is more important than any government assistance, and the trickle-down effect of wealthy folks giving back is more than enough to deal with America’s ongoing (and criminally under-addressed) poverty issues.
The emotionless, disembodied narrator (who I could swear also narrated the Monica Lewinsky-hosted Mr. Personality) makes it clear that in visiting the underprivileged Knoxville, TN, neighborhood of Western Heights and living for six days as if she were on food stamps, Dani “will leave her identity behind.” Because, of course, one’s identity is inextricably linked to one’s bank statement. When she volunteers with several different charities she justifies the presence of the camera crew by saying she’s making a documentary on volunteering. In reality, she’s assessing how much she might want to donate to each organization. Or as the narrator might frame it: “In the end, she will gift community heroes with a share of her fortune, after revealing herself as…the Secret Millionaire.”
Why is trickery necessary? It implies that the charities in question might not be as honest with Dani—or even as trustworthy—if they were to know the truth about her. That said, some of the situations Dani finds herself in seem so contrived that it’s hard to imagine people didn’t realize what was going on, like when she learns about a music school that works with impoverished kids by just “accidentally” running into a volunteer who’s walking down the street carrying a djembe.
During her time in Western Heights, she goes on to volunteer in a soup kitchen, deliver food to the elderly, clean musical instruments, and redecorate the bedrooms of kids with special needs. All of this is great. But I wish the show could be structured to emphasize this, to highlight the great value of volunteering, rather than building to a windfall-climax in which the millionaire rewards each of the charities with a donation. It sends the message that cutting a check is more valuable than donating of your time. That financial transactions are more important than the creation of human connections. Western Heights will still be mired in poverty when Dani returns to her life of privilege (with a substantial tax write-off), but kudos to those who stay behind to make people’s lives better when the cameras stop rolling. And by letting the millionaire decide exactly how much each charity deserves, it also turns philanthropy into a tacky game show, in which you’re left scratching your head about why one organization merited $40,000 and another only $20,000.
To be fair, Dani Johnson herself seems to have the right perspective on all this when she says, “We idolize celebrities, we idolize professional athletes, we idolize millionaires, we idolize all the wrong people. The people who have started these organizations…they are the model Americans.” Hear, hear! If only ABC took the same view, rather than shamelessly promoting a fantasy about the redemptive power of wealth.