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What I Watched Last Night: The Secret Millionaire / Part 2

(Part 1.)

Over the years, we've learned to expect certain things from reality-based TV. That's why I kept waiting for the uber-rich in the two-part premiere of Fox-TV's The Secret Millionaire to turn out to be the love spawn of Leona Helmsley and Ebeneezer Scrooge. The TV landscape is loaded with enough people transformed by wealth and privilege into spoiled, insufferable pricks that you'd expect this show's secret millionaires to wake up on Day Three yelling, "Screw the poor! I'm not going to spend one more goddamn night feeling things scurry across my legs in my sleep!"

That's why the Episode 2's secret millionaires, Todd Graves and wife Gwen, are such miserable disappointments. They're so . . . nice . . . and . . . friendly . . . and . . . decent . . . and . . . well . . . normal. Their home is no more outwardly ostentatious than anything you'd find on the market for under $700,000 in far west suburban Wayne. And if counting their many blessings wasn't enough, these two have been giving away an eyebrow-raising chunk of their income long before this show came ringing their doorbell.

Jesus H. Christ. What's rich-people reality TV coming to these days?

Todd, 36, is the self-made $60 million man behind Raising Cane's, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, chain of 76 joints in 13 states that sells chicken fingers. When Todd's not leaving chickens to figure out how they're supposed to start the car or enjoy a cup of coffee without their fingers, he's attending black tie dinners with the governor, dropping four or five grand on dinner "without even thinking about it," and private-jetting with his wife and kids all over God's green earth to "stay in all the best places all over the world." Gwen's a millionaire, too. She once owned a McDonald's franchise, but sold it for a huge bag of loot. "It's kinda neat being a millionaire in my own right," she said. We're sure it is.

Todd and Gwen's own little slice of Hell's half-acre was Buras, Louisiana. If Buras wasn't a big tourist destination before August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made sure it wouldn't be one anytime soon, either. Todd and Gwen actually fared better than Greg and Cole Ruzicka in Episode 1 because they didn't need to actually hunt for a crapshack to blow seven days worth of rent on because their lodging had already been picked out for them: a dingy, dirt-encrusted, gawdawful stanky-in-the-humidity RV that probably led a wonderful middle-class life as a weekend retreat 20 years ago at a Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park campground in Indiana. RVs aren't famous for surviving Category 3 hurricanes, so the fact that this one even existed made me suspect it was towed in special from somewhere far, far away.

Todd and Gwen spent half an eternity staring at the thing from their very clean and shiny SUV, but they were eventually drawn out by the quiet charm of the rusty, dented water heater sitting in what passed for the front yard, the table made out of a giant wooden cable spool turned on its side, and a canopy hanging off the side of the RV with - true to Deep South tradition - a string of Christmas lights someone left up. They didn't say it outright, but I think Todd and Gwen were probably just happy the nasty ol' thing had electricity.

Years of fine dining and having people to do your grocery shopping aren't much of an advantage when you're left to fend for yourself on $107 for a week. Having to drive halfway across the state to find a grocery store still standing after a killer hurricane is an inconvenience, but nowhere near the inconvenience it is to those who are dirt poor all year 'round in Buras without a car, or gas to put in the car if it didn't go floating off to the next parish three years ago. So Todd and Gwen luck out again. "I have no reality on how much things cost," says Todd, who runs up the food bill to $90.60 and has to have the cashier put back enough to leave them $31 for the rest of the week instead of $17.

Neither one are much on cooking skills, either. Gwen burns a bunch of bread on the RV's stove and Todd displays his knack for turning a small kettle grill into a device for sending War and Peace" by smoke signal. Because their expenses were pretty much covered as long as the Queen of England or Donald Trump didn't go dropping in unannounced, Todd and Gwen don't have to find jobs, so they spend their week using their friendly nature to work their way into the lives of the locals with the pretense of planning to film a documentary. To be fair, either a lot of the week ended up on the cutting room floor or I missed a whole lot in the 30 seconds it took for me to make a sandwich because Raising Cane's website says Todd and Gwen were offered jobs working in a restaurant and picking oranges and satsumas. I have no clue what a satsuma is, but evidently a number of them were picked.

During their week, Todd and Gwen took a cotton to some incredibly dedicated, community-minded individuals:

* Rev. Ted Turner, who has been living in a trailer and working since Katrina to rebuild what was left of the town volunteer center - largely alone and with rudimentary carpentry skills learned from his father. Asked why he chose to rebuild his community instead of hitting the road to somewhere less hurricane-prone, Ted kind of shrugged and said, "It's not a hard thing to answer. It's home." Todd spends much time power-nailing stuff and bonding with Rev. Ted.

* Elaine and Michael Cox, who returned to hurricane ruin to hear a calling to build The Gathering Place, a community center dedicated to keeping youngsters on the straight and narrow. Instead of rebuilding their own home first as most sensible people would do in this instance, Elaine and Michael moved into a FEMA trailer (and continued live in it three years later) so they could focus on the center. Todd and Gwen spend time donating some of their own sweat equity.

* Cyril Crutchfield, a football coach at South Plaquemine High School. As Todd makes a point of saying during Wednesday's episode, football is serious business in The South. The show didn't say whether there's much book learning going on at the three neighboring high school buildings decimated by Katrina, but there was no reason why someone couldn't take the players from those schools and turn them into a single powerhouse football team not easily fucked with. Cyril Crutchfield was that sort of someone. The field may not have any grass left on it, but it's got a scoreboard and bleachers, so there's no reason dreams of winning the state championship can't come true.

Again, to be completely fair, Cyril Crutchfield does more than just coach a football team. As Raising Cane's website puts it, "Coach Crutchfield's commitment is so strong that to this day he still lives in a small trailer on the school grounds because his schedule has not allowed him to start repairs on his own home, some three years after the hurricane. He wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning to drive the school bus, spends a full day in class and then sees to it that his athletes attend study hall while he drives students home on the bus. Then Crutchfield returns to coach his team at practice. After practice, he drives the team members home before he returns to his own home to begin work on the next day's lesson plans and the football team practice preparation."

And we bitch about our day.

Naturally, when Todd and Gwen come clean, the folks they hornswaggled display the look of mid-grade disappointment you'd see from the girl next door if you 10-stepped your way to her doorstep after all this time to make amends by revealing that you were the one who backed over her family's arthritic old dog in the driveway 30 years ago and kept going. I'm not sure a check for fifty grand would forgive something like that, but it seems to go a long way when it comes to little white lies in Buras, Louisiana.

In the end, Todd and Gwen were more decisive than the Ruzickas in figuring out how to divide the wealth. Not to minimize the generosity of Greg and Cole Ruzicka in the previous episode or detract from whatever honor they felt giving away their own money, but Todd and Gwen seemed to zone in more intently on the requirement that the secret millionaires give away at least $100,000 of their own cash. Greg Ruzicka waved adios to $125,000 of his own cash; Todd and Gwen pissed away more than $300,000 of theirs. On the other hand, Greg had to live with vermin and didn't have a millionaire wife backing up his stash.

On the third hand, maybe Todd and Gwen decided to simplify things by dealing with everyone in lots of $100,000 so they could enjoy a final night in their stanky-skanky RV without having to agonize over too many things. I don't know. But when all was said and done, Rev. Turner was gifted with a check for $100,000, various sporting goods, and all the fixins for a righteous BBQ pit to make life more comfortable for his volunteers; Elaine and Michael Cox received a check for $100,000 to fund their dream of keeping kids off whatever's left of the mean, aimless streets of Buras; and Coach Crutchfield received a $100,000 so the task of turning out rompin' stompin' athletes, honor students, and plain ol' average students alike can continue long after he gets sick and tired of driving that damn school bus.

Coming up Wednesday: The king of urban custom-car culture discovers nobody in Watts can afford a car.

-

See what else we've been watching! Submissions welcome.



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Posted on December 8, 2008


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