First a confession.
I loved—absolutely and beyond reason— For Love or Money—the NBC precursor to Average Joe (Mondays, 10 p.m. ET). For Love or Money 2 so obsessed my household that it necessitated weekly two- or three-hour postmortems about the chances of the various participants. I say this by way of explaining that unless you have fallen under the spell of one of these reality shows, none of the following can possibly make sense to you. Sure, I may be an obsessive, crazy moron. But Average Joe speaks to me in a way that nothing has since debate camp.
The reviewers totally missed the boat on Average Joe—a show in which a passel of ordinary bachelors—fat, pasty, short, bespectacled, over-educated, socially backward, and seemingly overwhelmingly Jewish bachelors—compete for one luscious blond vixen, Melana, who'd been led to believe she'd be meeting 16 "Prince Charmings" for a For Love or Money-type extravaganza. Tom Shales, the Washington Post critic who hates the show more than is reasonable, thought it was a pathetic display of "cynical humiliation, portraying the men not only as geeks but as freaks, a collection of largely pathetic losers." No, Tom, no! Sure, NBC deliberately edited the first shows to show the guys tripping, bumping into furniture, and literally mute with terror upon meeting the beautiful Melana. That part really was cynical. But you have to get past that to see what's best about Average Joe: how real these guys are.
They cried practically from the moment they met a gorgeous blond woman who'd never otherwise have looked in their direction. They broke into spontaneous dance numbers, they sang excruciating German ballads, they blurted out that their love was fated—even before she'd said hello. Unlike the macho men of last season's For Love or Money, they giggled and pushed one another to the front of the pack, so the shyest ones might get a better chance with Melana. In abandoning the whole fantasy of being ruggedly masculine guy-guys, the Joes blessedly, charmingly became … well, women. In fact, the Official Show Jerk, Zach, who was initially furious at being—as he kept repeating—"the best of the worst" is really the only guy-guy on the show.
The competitor everyone (including Zach) fell for, and hard, was Dennis—a model of almost Christlike kindness, openness, and sensitivity. Which is why Melana booted Dennis on the second week. Melana likes Zach. She likes him so much that when he explained to her last week that his parents might have a problem with the fact that she wasn't Jewish, she followed up by asking if he celebrates Christmas. Despite the fact that he does not, she's come to like him more and more. And in last week's big twist, when they brought in three gorgeous male-model types to compete against the three remaining average guys, Melana booted one of the models—a sensitive weepy Venezuelan named Alex—and kept Zach. Yes, she booted Alex, because he had revealed that he once sat outside his sick girlfriend's apartment with soup for six hours—while she cheated on him. (Alex was, to be sure, pretty annoying. Announcing "I like a girl who's into, like, God and animals," he proceeded to pray before their date. Interestingly, use of the word "like," has quadrupled since the models have joined the show.)
So what, then, is the lesson of Average Joe? It's an unintentional one: That just such average-ness, the emotional openness and weepiness and support-groupiness of its contestants makes viewers nervous. Maybe we see our own chess-club days (or the fear of the chess club within us) in these Joes. The goofy new model-competitors have introduced into the show, along with appalling grammar, stupid sock-hats; accessorizing with basketballs; competition for its own sake; and the art of appearing mysterious while they are in fact thinking about stupid sock-hats.
One of the original Joes is a harmless little fellow named John. Melana kept him around until yesterday, despite the endless Teutonic ballads and the fact that John kept describing his love for Melana as "filling me up," "lifting me up," "putting faith into me," and "putting enthusiasm into me." John was, in short, sort of a Ground Zero of Love—desperately needing to be built up, shored up, and landscaped. I haven't met anyone so certain about the redemptive power of love since I was at a junior-high-school slumber party. The Average Joes have been different from other reality-show bachelors in that they really are all in love with the bachelorette. And this isn't just because they are dating the hottest women they'll ever meet and are pathetically grateful (although that may be part of it). It's because, unlike supermodels and TV stars and the sock-hat gang from The Real World, Average Joes aren't able to take love for granted. They don't feel entitled; they feel shock and awe. And the result is the most romantic show you'll ever see.