You can’t make fun of a show like this. Even if your shriveled tar-black heart barely ekes out enough blood to sustain life, or you fed your soul to the devil’s dog, you can’t make fun of this show.
On Secret Millionaire, cinéma vérité meets The Oprah Winfrey Show. In this episode, self-made millionaire, and 41-year-old grandmother of three (okay, you can poke fun a little), Dani Johnson travels across Knoxville, Tennessee to find opportunities for volunteering. She visits three deserving local organizations–a food kitchen, a music school for underprivileged kids, and a bedroom makeover service for kids with life-threatening illnesses–and ultimately decides to split a fair chunk of change among them.
Johnson is not the sort of dollar bill burning millionaire we’ve come to expect from our wealthy public figures. She is candid about her own struggles, including a time in her early twenties when she was homeless and running her business out of the back of her car. Naturally I assumed that a television show depicting the generosity of self-made millionaires would undoubtedly be an American production, but Secret Millionaire is a British import which aired six successful seasons in the U.K.
Even if you disagree with Johnson’s evangelical beliefs and her statement that she normally makes charitable donations in the name of Jesus rather than reveal her identity, Secret Millionaire is a highly palatable reality television show about the decent things people do for each other. ABC has quietly cleansed any of Johnson’s references to her faith, even though we do see her reading her bible at times. This strategy depicts Johnson as an ordinary woman who made it big–the sort of well-intentioned neighbor that anyone can emulate.
Johnson is a perfect giver, and the organizations to which she donates are filled with ideal recipients: men and women whose faces register shock and whose eyes well with tears as soon as Johnson reveals her millionaire identity. It’s notable that she first explains her similarities to them, and then launches into the crucial difference that allows her to part with significant amounts of money. If we’re poor, we can hope to benefit from the behavior of people like Dani Johnson, but if we’re middle class, we can foresee a future for ourselves in which we can give the way Johnson gives.
Secret Millionaire is an interesting program because it asks viewers to envision themselves in a dual role of giver and recipient. We are encouraged to relate to the people Johnson helps–no homeless, unwashed schizophrenics proclaiming the end of days here–but we are also expected to understand Johnson’s position as a woman who’s seen some equally rough times and can now do something for a struggling community. The entire premise of this show would be lost if the secret millionaires were old money heiresses and landed aristocrats.
Secret Millionaire recognizes that even if people’s lives are punctuated with unemployment and welfare checks, they still want to believe in their potential to attain greater things. And since money is often the measure of a man, Secret Millionaire convinces us that anyone can have it, and thus anyone can be a better person (Although in Johnson’s case, many online references point to her multiple businesses as pyramid scheme scams). Stay tuned!