Less Than Zero
NBC’s Average Joe franchise is a notorious bottom feeder. Not because of the poor schlubs competing for a date, but because of the show’s basic manipulation, exploitation, and sensationalism—even more spectacular than other, similar shows. In the first two seasons, “average” men vied for the attention of a supermodel type, with the twist being the arrival of “handsome” jocks midway through, to throw off the game. The third season had a loser Joe from a previous season choosing from average gals, later joined by beautiful women.
Last season, the winning hunk dumped model Larissa Meek when he found out she had previously dated Fabio (he apparently thought this made him look cheesy by association). Though the series scripts “shocking surprises,” like this dumping, all of them are predictable, turning on cultural stereotypes—mostly about appearances and gendered dating behaviors, often the idea that women prefer confident, handsome bad boys.
This season returns to the original format: 26-year-old Anna, a model and entrepreneur with a business degree, dates a crop of unremarkable guys. And once again, the Joes have reason to worry: both previous women have chosen a hottie over the nice guys in the end. This season’s beefcake invasion is staged especially outrageously: each drives his own red Ferrari convertible, appearing over the desert horizon like the Magnificent Seven, shirtless and sweating prettily.
This fourth season offers a twist on that twist: each week, one of the rejected Joes gets an extreme makeover, including liposuction, eyebrow waxing, teeth whitening, confidence-building and dating instruction sessions, a nutrition and workout plan, and a very expensive haircut. He’s then reinserted into the game where it appears that the magic of plastic surgery and life coaching turns the Joe into an ideal date. It’s The Bachelorette meets Extreme Makeover. (At least introductions to the makeover segments display a sense of humor, playing The Six Million Dollar Man theme music over a graphic of a computer-drawn body changing from pudgy to buff.)
But the makeovers pose a particular problem for this show. Though the girls usually choose hunks, we’re supposed to be rooting for the Joes. A voiceover at the beginning of Episode One claims, “Their personalities will start to win her heart,” while Anna gets misty over a love letter from one of them. But the makeover feature changes all that, suggesting instead that average men don’t have to be average anymore. They can remake themselves to compete with the big boys. Now, there are no average Joes. Only Joes who haven’t had facelifts yet.
In the initial episode, Anna eliminates Nick, a 22-year-old magician, in her first cut. At the cocktail party meet-and-greet, he creeps out the other Joes when he keeps showing Anna magic tricks, talking about magic, staring at her, and then repeating the cycle. He’s young but already balding, he’s odd, he doesn’t stand a chance. But the show’s “panel of experts,” a kind of reality TV fairy godmother counsel, picks him for a life change. He gets alterations in his eyebrows, hair, and teeth, a chin lift, and liposuction. (We see tidbits of said improvements in gory montage.) His “life coach” shows him the tape of his awkward interactions with Anna and briefly instructs him on how to improve his game: stop talking about magic, stop raising your eyebrows because it looks weird, let your personality shine through, feel good about your haircut. In his new skin and duds, he proclaims himself a “changed man.” He will return in a future episode, previews implying he’s now a stronger competitor.
Still, it’s easy to pull for the underdogs, as their awkwardness and sincerity can be compelling. In Episode One, Art, a 36-year-old medical sales rep and divorcé, claims, “My looks are not a tool, my mouth is, I have the gift of gab.” In the second episode, he gets a dinner date with Anna and discusses his love of the Rat Pack and karaoke; it turns out she adores Sinatra and piano bars too. They share a romantic dinner and kisses by the pool. She likes that he’s “old school” and “he knows how to treat a lady.”
Moments after he’s left the date, Art is already tearfully proclaiming his love for the confessional camera. In fact, such a rush to desire is not unusual: the men are living in tight quarters, competing for the same woman. But she also seems genuinely nice and concerned about them. She goes so far as to assert she hasn’t seen much reality TV because she’s been taking night classes for the past two years. Though the editing frames her as naïve about the genre’s manipulations, it’s still a hard sell.
Her performance isn’t so annoying as the program’s, however: it makes a fuss out of rooting for average men, but it’s also kicking them in the head. One Joe, Damian, a 36-year-old professional fundraiser who describes himself as a member of Mensa, looks at his peers and says, “There’s something unnatural about having a beautiful lady have to pick from this bunch of guys. Somewhere Charles Darwin is rolling in his grave.” Actually, social Darwinists might like this show. Even if a Joe does manage to get picked in the end, Average Joes’ overriding message is that all of us should “look our best” in order to compete in the world, and that means norming stereotypes about beauty and traditional gender roles. Keep up or get cut. One hottie, Josh, observes, “You know, beautiful people like to surround theirself [sic] with beautiful people,” and another, Rocky, says, “I didn’t create this. This is the way the world is.” While the editing makes fun of their arrogance and implies these statements are too extreme, the message here is to go pump iron. And botox.