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Joe Mastermind

Brilliant programmer or evil genius bent on destroying American culture? Either way, Fox's reality guru Mike Darnell (the brains behind 'Joe Millionaire') is changing TV.

''Do we have enough room in the mouth area?''

''Does it strapon?''

''Once I take the latex off, can I use it again?''

It's a typical Tuesday morning in the cluttered L.A. office of Fox's exec VP of alternative programming, Mike Darnell -- the man who brought you Joe Millionaire and Celebrity Boxing. Typical because he arrived late for this meeting, and he'll be late for the next one. Typical because there are a dozen people needing his counsel while his phone rings incessantly. Typical because the topic at hand involves a ridiculous reality show that's being rushed onto the air next month.

This one's called Mr. Personality, and here's the premise: Let's see whether a woman can choose her mate based on inner beauty -- by dating a bunch of men in masks! Done properly, Darnell could be enjoying another hit that generates the watercooler chatter -- ironic, genuine, it doesn't matter -- he so very much craves. Done poorly? Well, let's not even go there, because it's just gonna make him even more competitive, stressed out, and sleep-deprived than he already is. Right now, he just needs to focus on the show's most critical element, the mask, which is concealed underneath a cloth. Darnell, dressed in his usual jeans and cowboy boots, reiterates his concern about the preliminary designs: They made it too easy to determine whether the wearer was attractive. The mask maker unveils an eerie, chiseled clay mold.

''What kind of face was underneath?'' Darnell asks, studying it intently.

''I took a vacuum form of a rather large man's face,'' she answers.

''Handsome or not handsome?''

''Not handsome.''

''I can't tell,'' Darnell mutters. ''That's pretty good.'' The discussion turns to how contestants will be ID'd while they're wearing one of the 10 colored latex versions of the false face. ''Should we give them names?'' Darnell wonders aloud. ''I'd love her to say 'Blue Mask Man' or something, but I don't know if it'll work in a romantic situation: 'Oh, Blue Man! I think you're so sweet!' 'Green Man is driving me crazy!'''

The glare from the lightbulbs popping above Darnell's head intensifies. ''I think there's something funny here.'' He chuckles. ''This show is pretty f -- -ing funny.''

It's also intriguing, humiliating, crafty, and sensational. And we're betting critics will hate it. It's just like every other spectacle that Darnell has created in his nine-year career at Fox, a tenure that can be officially -- though not adequately -- summarized by phrases like Man vs. Beast and Temptation Island. Many laud Darnell, 40, as a cunning TV showman with dead-on instincts. Others deride him as a carnival-barking schlock purveyor who's hastening the end of civilization. But one thing everyone can agree on: This 5-foot-tall, 93-pound Tiny Tim-esque dude casts a huge shadow over the television landscape. Rival networks copy his formulas, and two of this season's biggest hits, Joe Millionaire and American Idol, came from his division, helping Fox emerge from a Nielsen nadir. In other words, Mike Darnell is the best (or worst) thing to happen to TV since the remote control.

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