Tonight, on Fox’s new reality series I Wanna Marry Harry, 12 hot, young, British-history-adverse Americans will compete for the affections of Prince Harry! The catch? This British ginger isn’t really Prince Harry, as anyone with a half-decent monocle can already tell, although we’re told that he does score a 99 percent match with his royal counterpart using facial recognition technology. (Science!) Not to worry, though: In case you forget that Matt Hicks is just an impostor, the show helpfully identifies him as “Matt Hicks, Not Really Prince Harry.” Apparently, it’s all part of some benevolent master plan: “I have to convince them that I’m Prince Harry,” Hicks explains, “but the goal is for them to like me for who I am.” Yes, Your Highness, you deserve to be adored for who you are: a guy who lies about who, exactly, that is.
If this mean-spirited premise sounds familiar to you — dollar-crazed ladies fall for rich dude, get taught a lesson on national TV — it’s because you’ve seen it before. I Wanna Marry Harry comes from executive producer Danny Fenton, the creator of 2003’s Joe Millionaire, a reality hit that tried to trick dozens of stiletto-tottering debutantes into competing for the hand of Evan Marriott, who wasn’t really a hotel family heir. Ironically, that show’s winner, Zora Andrich, split the prize money with Marriott before walking away forever. Maybe money can’t buy love, but love can buy money. The show was such a smash (about 35 million people watched the finale) that Fox tried to cash in again with The Next Joe Millionaire. But that sequel totally flopped, suggesting that hoaxes only work once. So why should I Wanna Marry Harry fare any better?
Before I answer that, let’s get one thing straight: You probably won’t want to watch I Wanna Marry Harry, unless you’re charmed by the kind of woman who lists her “occupation” as “Miss Los Angeles” or the type of Brit who shames Americans for not having “inside voices.” But something tells me that this show could still be a success. Americans are clearly obsessed with the monarchy, not just in real life, with the media mania around William and Kate’s wedding and baby, but also on screen, with Game of Thrones, Reign, The White Queen, and Elizabeth Hurley’s Royals coming to E! later this year. As Alessandra Stanley recently pointed out in The New York Times, Downton Abbey has made the U.K.’s aristocracy seem “approachable,” and the greenlighting of shows like Bravo’s new Ladies of London and BBC America’s Almost Royal suggests faith in the idea that regular Americans like to see their own kind paired with the upper-crust. So it makes perfect sense that the royal family (or the Not Really The Royal Family) should be the subject for a dating show. You might say that Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, was the original winner of The Bachelor — a beauty plucked from a bevy of civilians to marry the world’s most coveted single man and have her love story broadcast on television. There was even talk about a rose.
Diana’s story has become the ultimate fairy tale, complete with a bona fide villain (Prince Charles) and a wicked stepmother (Camilla). So why not reimagine her son’s story as a fairy tale of its own? I Wanna Marry Harry actually casts Hicks in the role that’s usually reserved for the princess: He walks into the castle as a regular bloke, gets greeted by a butler, then finds himself transformed by etiquette lessons (sadly, there’s nothing about why one mustn’t dress as a Nazi on Halloween) and a full-blown makeover. Someone even dyes his hair. Once he’s all fixed up, he’s treated to a masquerade ball and, just like in some Young Adult romance, dances with suitors who are clearly out of his league when they remove their masks at the stroke of midnight. You might even think this was a feminist twist on the old Pygmalion story if the show didn’t trade in such sexist tropes, like branding women as gold-diggers or casting only those who’d brand themselves with names like “the bitch” or “the naughty pre-school teacher.” In fact, the instant Matt becomes “Harry,” he’s already saving these pretty things from stumbling on their high heels, prompting one naughty pre-school teacher to cry out, “My knight in shining armor!”
In a way, I Wanna Marry Harry might be a different kind of fairy tale: the one we tell ourselves as Americans. The one that suggests that all you need is a little bootstrap-pulling (or bronzer-applying) to pull yourself out of middle-class obscurity and into some demi-celebrity income bracket where you can buy your own glass slippers. A show like this could only exist here in the United States. In the U.K., there’s a belief that you’re born into your bloodline — literally, in the case of the royals — and nothing can change that. Maybe that’s part of why we’re obsessed with the monarchy: it allows us to feel superior to the Brits, with our democratic society, even as we’re dazzled by the Queen and her family’s customs. The class divide might be just as wide in the U.S., but somehow, living in America makes you believe that if you just work hard enough, you can be royal, too. And that’s true even if you’re Not Really Prince Harry.