When news broke that Joe Millionaire matri-money seeker Sarah Kozer had been previously hired to appear in a batch of -- boy, did I never dream I'd be writing this phrase in an AOL Time Warner publication -- ''light bondage'' movies, my first thought was ''Well, that reality show goes up half a grade in my next review.'' Because really, the appeal of shows like Millionaire, The Bachelorette, The Surreal Life, and Celebrity Mole Hawaii lies in the way their fantasy components -- the mansions, the champagne, the conspicuous consumption of food, smooches, and hot-tub time -- collide with the game (rejection via competition and whim). The melange gives these series both amusement and a kind of doofus poignancy. To discover that a contestant is also the star of films like Savory Stockings and Tape Bound! is the reality-show version of supersizing; one simply cannot believe there are Europeans who dislike America.
Granted, some of these shows are more fascinating than others. I disliked the two editions of The Bachelor intensely -- those tacky ''rose ceremonies'' and the intellectual nullity, the sheer conversational sliminess of both the bachelors! However, I am enthralled by The Bachelorette, and why should I try to excuse my change of heart and mind with fancy critical justifications? It's because I think Trista is pretty hot and very cool in the way she controls her own little corner of the TV universe. Suddenly, grammar and farewell roses seem so, y'know, irrelevant.
Of course, the subtext of The Bachelorette is itself an unworkable fantasy, even -- or especially -- for the man whom Trista chooses on Feb. 19. As David Letterman put it, quoting one of ABC's ads, ''She's hot, she's in charge, and she's ready to rock.'' Turning to Paul Shaffer, Dave said incredulously, ''Do you really want a wife who is 'ready to rock'?'' Precisely. Yet that's what the barrel-chested boys whom Trista has chosen think they do want. It's the old children's-physical-therapist-in-the- kitchen, Miami Heat-cheerleader-in-the-sack syndrome. But, other than Jennifer Garner in Alias and Maura Tierney after she's had a few espressos on ER, is ''scripted'' programming coming up with viable alternatives to Trista Rehn? I think not. Godspeed, good woman.
On the other hand, while watching Joe Millionaire, have you ever closed your eyes, listened to secretly regular-joe Evan, and realized that his voice is a dead ringer for Billy Bob Thornton's, especially when the latter was in the woozy throes of Angelina Jolie? JM's gimmick -- that a $19,000 per- annum working stiff is being passed off as a Daddy Warbucks, the better to prove the perfidy of womanhood -- is engrossing in exact proportion to which its premise doesn't matter. The show gets huge ratings every week not because viewers are waiting for Evan to reveal his diminished income, but because we cannot believe the amount of malarkey he's had to put up with from a procession of high-maintenance wackos.
Given its numbers, Joe Millionaire pulled in a lot of men as well as women, as Evan rejected the deluded, mad-hatted Mojo and the brainy, red-haired Alison. I don't know what female viewers make of these women, but I know what guys do; they think: ''Whew! Yup, that's the kind of bullet I once dodged.'' It's comfort TV in a way The Waltons never was.
As for The Surreal Life and Celebrity Mole Hawaii -- well, who among us doesn't enjoy a hearty chuckle at the expense of a celebrity down on his or her media luck? Mole has had the good ratings fortune to follow Bachelorette, but with the early ejection of the show's two cheerfully up-front macho idiots, Stephen Baldwin and Corbin Bernsen, it immediately devolved into a showcase for Kathy Griffin, braying put-down lines she may use on hecklers she encounters in some Midwestern comedy club. The Surreal Life features M.C. Hammer, Motley Crue's Vince Neil, Playboy model Brande Roderick, Survivor II's Jerri Manthey, and actors Emmanuel Lewis, Gabrielle Carteris, and Corey Feldman, who all agreed to live in a plush house for a mere 10 days. But celebs have a lower tolerance for cohabitation than you or I or even the average Real World denizen. Carteris finds Feldman insufferable, which he is, but she's prissily self-righteous; Neil screams obscenities at the Surreal camera crew shortly before getting slurrily loaded during a Las Vegas outing. Feldman, realizing that Hammer and Lewis were coming off as the sanest and most worthy of attention, hijacked the series by announcing in the first episode that he would marry his fiancee during his Surreal stint, thus hogging climactic camera time. Author of a CD of original songs, Feldman says everything in a pained groan, and groans at one point, ''Once you're just a celebrity, no longer can you be seen as an artist.''
But what if you're neither, Corey? Bachelorette: B Joe Millionaire: C+ Surreal Life: B- Celebrity Mole Hawaii: D