When Rich Meets Reality – Depicting the Benefaction of the Wealthy

In such a hyper-mediated society, it’s only fitting that watching television is one of America’s favorite and most time-consuming activities. The middle-class American family is a historic character of the small screen, immortalized in such classics as All in the Family and The Simpsons – reassuring the most robust, yet simultaneously fragile social class during bouts of racial strife and economic turmoil.  Yet, as wealth disparities grow and the middle class suffers, television offers a new type of reassurance – one that proclaims that rich people are just like us.

Bill Maher and his late-night HBO talk show Real Time are notorious for unwavering wit and critical satire highlighting America’s innumerable political and social issues. Last Friday’s episode was no exception; and, one particular rant at the end of the program caught the eye of Gawker’s Matt Cherette — Bill Maher’s tirade about ABC’s newest reality show Secret Millionaire.

Bill Maher isn’t shy to lay the facts on the table—“This is America, where the top 400 people have more money than the bottom 150 million combined,” he exclaims. And, as the rich and famous flaunt around from channel to channel, there’s less and less on television depicting the lives of those 150 million. But Secret Millionaire, a British reality show export,  goes a step farther than the Real Housewives, illustrating the selflessness of the wealthy, the wholesome all-Americanness of multi-million dollar salaries through the clandestine philanthropy of millionaires.

To disclaim, wealth and income do not necessarily change people — a charitable person is a charitable person; however, the television dynamic in which Secret Millionaire exists makes the show just as much propaganda as it is entertainment. Reality television is arguably driven by a sort-of voyeurism. Secret Millionaire gives viewers the ability to delve into the lives of those “well-off” Americans that don’t crave fame — those just like us. Indeed, it seems weird watching millionaires on television who aren’t pedaling catastrophic pop songs or seeking gratuitous fame. But, does Secret Millionaire, in all its entertainment glory, serve as an affront to the middle class?

Maybe. Secret Millionaire, like most any show revolving around someone’s wealth, glorify the lives of the rich, both advertently and inadvertently. The rich benefactors on Secret Millionaire are depicted as saviors, using their wealth to help the helpless. In the end, however, Secret Millionaire is yet another piece of escapist evening entertainment that, not unlike its primetime brethren, seeks to offer the viewer an hour of dissociating pleasure, albeit while ostensibly glorifying wealth and slighting the very economic and social dynamics that make such a show so voyeuristically successful.

Cherette, Matt. “Bill Maher to Poor People: Stop Thinking Your Interests are the Same as the Rich“. Gawker TV. 12 March 2011, 11:59 PM.