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What I Watched Last Night: The Secret Millionaire / Part 1

There's a point in the Christmas-time film Trading Places where Billy Ray Valentine turns to Louis Winthorp III and says, "You know, it occurs to me that the best way you hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people." That's sort of the idea behind each hour-long episode of Fox-TV's new reality-based program, The Secret Millionaire, which premiered this week with back-to-back episodes

I say it's sort of the idea because here the rich people get turned into poor people on purpose. And after a week, they get turned back into rich people.

The mission, according to the program's intro (which captures all the glitz and glamor of being a Carrington for anyone who might have missed Dynasty 20 years ago) is for everyday multi-millionaires to voluntarily trade their lives of splendor for one that sends them into some of the worst neighborhoods to live just like the poor, the desperate, and the downtrodden who inhabit them. Relieved of anything they could easily hock at a pawn shop (or be relieved of at gunpoint), they're dressed in whatever's appropriate for the surroundings and dropped off with $100 or so in cash to live on for a week. In that time, they have to meet any number of genuinely needy people to give away at least $100,000 of their own money to - but under no circumstances can they tell anyone that they have more money than God.

At week's end, they re-appear as the rich people they are to let everyone know they've been lied to in return for a huge chunk of change that'll make an actual difference in their lives. "The mission is to change lives. Will they survive?" the show asks. When your existence appears to be built around keeping Harry Winston and the whole luxury car industry afloat, that's a good question that might possibly translate into some pretty good TV.

Aw, hell. You know damn well it's going to be pretty good TV.

In the first installment, we meet gazillionaire California law firm founder Greg Ruzicka, a self-described "anxiety-ridden, driven, intense" fellow who earned his first million at age 32 and has managed since then to earn more millions than there are stars in the sky. In his spare time, he amasses an impressive collection of Aston Martins, private jets, homes in Newport Beach and Maui, and blahblahblahblahblah. His law firm specializes in bankruptcy and foreclosure, so business is - gee, surprise - "incredibly good right now." Greg doesn't say whether he feasts upon the blood of banks or the common citizenry losing its shirt, but when you're able to lease a castle in Ireland for your son's 15th birthday party and jet in everyone on the guest list, it probably doesn't matter which leprechaun owns that pot of gold at the end of your rainbow.

The primary benefactor of that pot of gold is Greg's son Cole, a likable 22-year-old who spends a good part of his day playing guitar, surfing, and skateboarding. He comments that his dad's so rich, he's not even going to bother trying to match him. It's not that Cole's a slacker short on ambition; it's just that his dad's in a filthy-rich league of his own and trying to match it would be like trying to outdo Jesus by turning jugs of water into jugs of crack instead of wine.

"Not everyone has had the blessings he's had," Greg says of Cole, so you know what that means. Yup! The kid's going to be going along for the ride to Hellhole City, USA - which for the Ruzicka boys lies a short yacht-ride down the California coast to Imperial Beach, a place where nobody can seem to make up their mind whether the beach should be used as a garbage dump or a sewage dump. In the meantime, a chunk of its residents live below wherever the poverty line is drawn for communities with ruined economies.

Flush with $150 in cash, the Ruzickas wander into town looking bedraggled enough to fit in with the aluminum-can collecting crowd (after a few days without his razor, Greg is well on his way to resembling Mr. Gower, the druggist from It's A Wonderful Life) but not reeky enough where everyone who encounters them makes sure they stay upwind. Housing choices are pretty slim for newcomers of their ilk, so the boys settle on a roach/termite/silverfish-infested crap hole that'll set them back $57 a day - paid in advance each morning, of course. "As long as you pay every day, you can stay," says the manager. "It's not the Taj Mahal." No shit, Sherlock.

Sensing impending financial doom with less than $100 left, Greg announces they must find jobs. Cole dives right into the swing of the whole jobless/homeless thing by seeing no point in setting an alarm clock for the next morning. A notice for construction work available sends them on the road to a fulfilling career demolishing drywall once Greg gets done spending three hours trying to figure out how to put on a dust mask and keep a hard hat on his head.

In their travels, they become partial to three potential targets to inherit some unexpected good fortune:

* Linda, the construction demolition manager. She broke her back in several places after touching a live electrical wire and fell off a roof. Uninsured, found herself homeless for a year after her medical bills bankrupted her. She's now just getting back on her feet, and spends a part of her weekend mornings working at the same church soup kitchen that helped her survive. She might look like someone crossed a coal miner with a biker chick who has seen too many miles, but a hard life hasn't squeezed all the decency and goodness out of her.

* Kathy, a woman who runs a boarding house for homeless women and children out of her home. She once openly ridiculed the homeless, but now she spends her Social Security checks supporting them. "God has a sense of humor," Kathy says.

* Emily Rose, a little girl undergoing chemo treatments for bone cancer. Her parents, not surprisingly, work for small companies that offer no insurance benefits, so they rely on spare-change donations from cans placed on the counters of various neighborhood businesses.

Deciding how to dole out at least $100,000 of your own cash is apparently not as easy as it sounds, as Greg and Cole are seen spending what seems to be an entire night making lists of potential recipients and checking them twice because, well, a hundred grand only goes so far and you can't help everyone who needs it. But they get through it and show up in tailored suits and a Mercedes minivan to let everyone in on the big lie and present them with a nice personal check. I wouldn't have thought the super-rich actually write personal checks these days, but I'm not super rich, so what do I know? What I do know, though, is that if you tell someone like Linda that you've spent a whole week lying to her, you shouldn't be too surprised if she actually does shank you in the gut with a broken beer bottle instead of just looking like she'd want to.

In the end, Linda got $25,000 and Kathy and Emily Rose's parents each got $50,000. As you might expect, the reactions to being handed a check for that much cash out of the blue ranged from a lot of speechless and tears to Linda expending a lot of effort trying to give the check back. What I didn't expect, though, is that the Ruzickas (and Todd and Gwen Graves, in the following episode) seemed to genuinely find a lot of pleasure in giving their own money away to complete strangers they'd never have any reason to meet otherwise.

And let me tell you, if you don't get at least a little choked up at least once in the last 10 minutes of the show, there's definitely something seriously amiss with you.

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Up next in Part 2: Louisiana's chicken-finger king goes trailering in Katrina Country.

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



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Posted on December 5, 2008


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