Who wants to marry a multimillionaire?

A whole buncha losers, that's who. Married's just another word for nothing left to lose.

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God, the networks screw everything up.

Fox flies in 50 women “from all over the world” (OK, several U.S. states and a handful of former Eastern Bloc nations) to the “wedding capital of the world” (the Las Vegas Hilton) to compete, pageant-style (swimsuits, questions), for “the biggest prize of all” — wait for it, ladies –”a brand-new multimillionaire husband” they’ve never laid eyes upon and then … this?

Who knew depravity could be so dull?

Sure, Fox tried Tuesday night: It had the requisite post-industrial, post-Regis, post-Clooney Batcave set in muted, steely grays to suggest other hit shows; it had a catch phrase, “Mrs. Multimillionaire” (sadly inapplicable in many everyday situations); it played unsettling “Is that your final answer?” music; it had a high-rent version of “phone-a-friend” (fly in 80 friends and relatives and make them vote on the stranger who’s right for you); it even had a title in the form of a question — “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” And, of course, it was “making television history” by marrying total strangers on TV. Still, Fox went about it all wrong.

For one thing, the specter of “wholesome sex” clung to this sad parade like a silent fart in a crowded elevator. Why not just go all out? Call the show “People Will Do Anything for Money” or “America’s Funniest Prostitutes”? They could have had a Sultan of Brunei/modern harem-girl theme. Or Caligula. They could have had contestants gouge each other’s eyes out in their wedding dresses in a mud-filled ring. Something cute like that.

Instead, Fox gave the 50 contestants, ranging in age from 19 to 45 (with most falling within the 25 to 32 range) roughly five seconds to tell “Mr. Multimillionaire” — safely sequestered in his booth, occasionally flashing a thumb — a little bit about themselves. “Hi, I’m from Kansas City, Mo., but my breasts are from Southern California.” Stuff like that.

Later, once contestants had been pared down to 10 semifinalists, they got a chance to go a bit deeper. Some made clumsy attempts at suggestive remarks (a former cheerleader: “I’m really good at ‘sit and spin!’”) before dissolving (I alluded to sex! Ha, ha! Snort! Ha! Pfft!) into pools of giggles.

The whole network procurement angle was discreetly downplayed. Even the “beachwear competition” was prudish, with contestants demurely draping their nethers in pareos and tiny skirts. There was only one playmate type in the original lineup: a 20-year-old “professional student” who, utterly convinced — look around! — that she was going to win, had the gall to introduce herself as “possibly your future bride-to-be.” That got her crossed off the list good-like.

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Here and there, we were treated to glimpses of the back of the blushing groom’s head. That he was in possession of the back of a head, as well as several million dollars, was all we knew of him. It was all the contestants knew of him. It was all, ostensibly, anyone but Next Entertainment producers Mike Fleiss and Don Weiner knew of him — though they do say you can tell a lot about a man by his mother. She came prepared with a sound bite: “It’s going to be an interesting evening.” My, what sang-froid. It’s no doubt been an interesting mother.

The producers, after having spent time with Multi and ascertaining what it was he was “looking for in an ideal woman,” developed a quiz to help weed out the pretenders and find that special someone. After the 50 were whittled down to 10 potential helpmeets, the finalists took the hot seat. Questions were designed to assess the moral rectitude of the prospective brides. They went something like this:

1) Are you going to make me jealous?

2) Are you a slut?

3) Are you planning on spending all my money?

4) Are you going to hassle me about my extramarital affairs?

5) Are you going to make me jealous?

6) Are you planning on spending all my money?

7) Are you going to hassle me about my extramarital affairs?

8) Are you planning on spending all my money?

9) Are you planning on spending all my money?

10) Are you a slut/Are you planning on spending all my money?

Contestants were narrowed down to five finalists (and it worked out great, because there was one of everything): a fresh-faced bitch, 26; an adorable blond idiot, 20; a fiery redhead who must have been Catholic because shame came and bit her in the ass halfway through the proceedings, lending her an anxious, downcast quality, 32; a slightly unhinged party girl with braces still on, 23; and, finally, the dark horse who came from behind (no one was as surprised as she): a platinum-blond emergency-room nurse with old-fashioned values, 34.

Yes, ladies, he went for the nurse.

And though she was certainly surprised, she didn’t look exactly pleased when Multi ambled over and took her hand. Because the man was all chin. Well, 50 percent chin, 50 percent quiet desperation. Expressing shock at all the trouble that had been gone to “for him,” he spoke eloquently on the subject of contestants’ rights (“It’s not fair that I got to ask them all the questions. It’s not fair that I got to see them and they didn’t get to see me”) and planted a big, wet one on his fiancie, who was, by then, shaking like a leaf and looking quite pale.

Then they got married. Nobody cried.

And now, perhaps, we should take a moment to reflect on the state and fate of the networks in this age of information on command (well, almost). Maybe it’s time American networks made like the Europeans and started trotting out hot, half-naked girls whenever the news needs reading or a letter needs turning. Or maybe the producers could have considered partnering up with Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake. They could have called it “Get Your Hands off My Multimillionaire, Bitch!” or “Bitch Stole My Multimillionaire.” That might have been fun.

What wasn’t fun at all — and remained not fun all the way through the repulsive denouement — was watching these “real” women answer questions about why they’d be perfect for, um, whoever. They made Marla Maples look principled.

Every time they cut to the back of Multi’s head, I wished that something truly outlandish would happen. Something that would really make television history — like that he’d turn around and have no nose. (What if he had no nose and they forced the contestant to marry him anyway? Why not? “Felicity” did a “Twilight Zone” episode.)

But no such luck. The groom is unveiled and he’s just a big-chinned real estate developer who’s excited about the beachside “estates” he’s erecting. All he wants is to find an average-looking 34-year-old nurse to be insular and domestic and take walks on the beach with. And for that he has to go on TV and marry a stranger. It was all so droopy and sad. It was just no fun at all.

I’m only saying this because, if this thing goes to series, we will watch it only to witness moral bankruptcy on parade. And if you’re going to put it on parade, put it on parade. Enough with the muted grays and wholesome questions. Include a talent show. Have the girls perform song-and-dance numbers. Hold a pie-baking race. Make them blow a banana. But try to dress it all up in the cloak of respectability and the air goes out of the balloon and distracts us from what’s really important — gawking at people who are very, very ill.

Judging from the look of abject terror and remorse on the bride’s face, “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” probably won’t, after all, make television history. But it might be the kind of thing that eventually makes the networks history.

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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