When we hear those words, we often think of small-screen dreck: Jersey Shore. Big Brother. Bridalplasty. These programs can make even the most secular among us start dreaming of the rapture … because this sort of programming seems synonymous with very hot places and hurtling hand baskets.
But while some of the worst television around is labeled "reality," so is some of the best. Exhibit A: Secret Millionaire.
The ABC series (it originally aired on Fox back in 2008) operates, essentially, under the same tear-jerk premise as CBS' Undercover Boss. But there's a twist. Rich people travel to some of the country's poorest neighborhoods and spend a week undercover, volunteering at various charitable organizations. (Camera crews are explained as documentarians looking at the concept of volunteer work.) Then, when the week's up, the millionaires return to these organizations, tell them who they really are and hand over checks with lots of zeroes on them. Crying, naturally, ensues.
It's all very sweet in an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition sort of way. If the premise is a little hokey and the in-show setups feel, at times, a little contrived, that doesn't take away from the innate goodness of the show, does it?
Entertainment Weekly's Christian Blauvelt feels the show, in some ways, undercuts its own message—lauding the rich for their generosity while minimizing the humanity of those they help. While he acknowledges that watching millionaires serve as volunteers is "great," Blauvelt adds, "I wish the show could be structured … 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."
And there's another issue to tackle: As Christians, we're kinda taught to give in secret—not make a big deal out of who we're helping or how much money we're bestowing. Even though some of these so-called secret millionaires are Christians, the conceit of the show forces them to, essentially, toot their own horns before millions of viewers.
"We told ABC 'no' four times," Dani Johnson, the first millionaire featured on the show, told Plugged In. "We didn't want anything to do with the show. … We have used our business to give, but we give in secret. So when they said that I had to give in my name, and that the people would know that I was the one giving them the check, that was the most giant hurdle. … In fact I told the executive producer, 'I am not your girl. What part of this equation do you not understand?'"
But Johnson changed her mind. "When I realized, when my husband and I both realized we were fighting God, and not a man," it changed everything for them.
Johnson believes it isn't about the money she gives, but rather the way the show allows her to encourage others to give. She believes God gave her the platform to push folks to donate to worthy efforts and causes their time, talents and, in some cases, treasure.
And that's ultimately the beauty of this show. It's not free of problems: It's a reality show, and some of the folks shown cuss occasionally or dress inappropriately. But Secret Millionaire introduces us to some outstanding charities, and it shows us that these places don't run on their own. Blauvelt makes a good point. But after watching, I don't think that Secret Millionaire lauds the wealthy as much as it shines a light on some of America's most pressing problems and applauds the people trying to do something about them. While we can't all write $40,000 checks, the show tells us we can still make a difference.
"I hope and I pray that people walk away with the same fire in their belly that I have walked away with," Johnson said. "Don't wait a month or a year. You don't have to start a Love Kitchen [a charity she volunteered at]. There are people right in your neighborhood that you can buy groceries for. There are people right in your neighborhood who need a loving touch, a hand, a ride to the doctor's office. There are people all around you who need help. It's time to pull together and do the right thing."
"Dani Johnson: Knoxville, TN"
Dani Johnson, a self-made self-help guru who was once homeless and on welfare, spends a week in the rough Western Heights neighborhood of Knoxville, Tenn. While there, she volunteers with three local organizations: The Love Kitchen, where 82-year-old twins Ellen Ash and Helen Turner serve about 2,000 people a week; The Joy of Music, which gives underprivileged kids musical instruments and a place to play them; and Special Places, which creates dream bedrooms for woefully sick kids. Johnson ends up writing checks to all the organizations—and gives another $10,000 to the family of a leukemia-stricken girl named Daisy, whose room Johnson helps fix up.
"Frickin'" is said, and we hear God's name misused about a half-dozen times. But we also see Johnson read her Bible and talk about God's hand in helping the poor. Hard-luck stories are given due respect without being turned into hyperbole. And overall, the episode ends up being an inspirational bit of television. "We idolize celebrities, we idolize professional athletes, we idolize millionaires, we idolize all the wrong people," Johnson says. "The people who have started these organizations … they are the model Americans."