On the finale of this summer’s Average Joe, Nathan, a Joe who had undergone a makeover, won, reversing a two-year losing streak for the Joes. In the last scene, when Anna extolled Nathan’s virtues, it was easy to forget that she had sent him packing in an earlier episode, pre-makeover. Maybe it was the teeth—he got veneers.
On the most superficial level, we can infer from this fairytale that nice guys can occasionally win, that it’s important to keep striving for our goals, even if they seem unattainable, that sometimes a second chance is all anyone needs, even that good can triumph over evil. I prefer an alternative reading, one that places Average Joe in skewed and provocative relation to other reality dating shows.
Average Joe differs from other entries in the genre not only because the contestants are ordinary, but because they are pitted against a team of hunks. It has the usual small talk and eliminations, but the story really depends on a competition between two teams, rather than individuals. Its elevation of the simple contest becomes comic, given the prosaic subject—dating.
From the beginning of the six-episode series of The Joes Strike Back, the contest between the Joes and hunks was presented as a bizarre sort of epic battle. On the evening the hunks arrived, the Joes were gathered together, enjoying fireworks. The hunks came into view on jet-skis, dressed in tuxedoes. It was like watching the Saxons land in Britain. The hunks were big, confident and good-looking, dominating the landscape and the smaller Joes. Later, at the Average Joe mansion, the hunks rummaged through the rooms and threw the Joes’ belongings out in the garden, taking over like an invading army.
From this point on, tests were set up to measure their manly worths, almost all requiring brute strength: a game of dodge ball, wrestling, and roller derby. Not surprisingly, the hunks won all of the physical challenges. The cameras shot from low angles, exaggerating their height, whereas the Joes were frequently shown prone on the floor after assaults by the hunks, moaning and rubbing their bruised shins. Chris Carson, a male model and body builder, bullied and threatened the Joes, jeering at them. The Joes only won when the hunks ceded an eating contest. While the hunks stood around them, the poor Joes sat slumped at the table, stains on their shirts, pizza sauce on their mouths.
Continuing the battle metaphor, the producers introduced a “secret weapon.” Some of the rejected Joes got makeovers and second chances with Anna. Of the original 18 Joes, four were made over: Nathan, shy and overweight, with occluded teeth; Joshua, who looked like Jesus and jumped around antically; Nick, who performed magic tricks, to everyone’s annoyance; and Dante, a heavy, hirsute waiter who challenged Carson to a fight. The makeovers were minimal—counseling on clothing and hair styles, depilation, dental work, and a little guidance on behavior. The magician was told, for example, to stop doing magic, that it was “weird.”
Altogether, the makeovers accounted for no more than 25 minutes of screen time over six weeks (eight hours), even though promotional spots focused on them as the key feature of the series. Still, they dramatized the series’ promise of the Joes’ “rebirth” and bad reading on Anna’s part: when the made-over Joes reappeared before her, they had to sprint through a water sprinkler to stand before her. And she received them with appropriate surprise.
While the Joes were getting physical makeovers, the hunks—at least as represented by Carson—were undergoing emotional transformations. Originally, Carson cynically claimed that Anna was doing the show to launch her career, not “for the right reasons.” But on their date to the vineyards, he became, by his own words, “a believer… a changed man.” This transformation carried through to his final scene. Just before he boarded the bus, Carson pledged his support, like a liege warrior, to Arthur, his former nemesis and leader of the Joes.
The final competition between Rocky and Nathan involved words and sentiment, shifting the advantage to Nathan, despite a tropical location that favored Rocky’s fit physique. Why Anna ultimately selected Nathan is a mystery. Perhaps she grew weary of Rocky’s narcissism or wary of his history of infidelities, despite her obvious physical attraction to him. It seemed an unlikely ending, given her obvious preference for the hunks throughout the weeks. Rocky’s wracking sobs in the back of the jeep as Anna and Nathan boarded the boat to sail into the sunset only added to the sense that the hunk—smug, hard, presumptuous—had met his just end.
On the surface, The Joes Strike Back was just another dating show. But a closer look beneath the surface reveals something more complex. The garbled metaphors, which mixed combat imagery, fairytales, and spiritual transformation, suggest a more intriguing perspective on dating and the mystery of finding “the one.” Moreoever, Anna’s decision raises some provocative questions about reality and reality television. We know that nearly everything in “real” life is actually a social construction. And, we understand that “reality” television is scripted. But, how much free choice does a contestant on a reality dating show have? Perhaps, like such contestants, when we think we are exercising free will, we are just living out scripts.