"Once there was an average Joe," begins Joe Millionaire -- an apt opening for a reality TV show that draws on fairy-tale conventions. But there's something darker than happily ever after in Fox's latest offering: What happens when the dream prince is nothing but a pauper, when a Cinderella tale collides with real-life lies?

The Cinderella story was never great: A girl pined for a prince who carried her goddamn shoe around because he couldn't remember what his true love looked like. But trust Fox's perversion of the Midas touch to turn even the fool's gold that is Cinderella to pure poop.

In an interesting twist, the person who gets to experience the rags-to-riches transformation is Evan Marriott, a 28-year-old construction worker. Evan is first seen stuffing his piehole with French fries, just so we know how down-to-earth and average he is. He only makes $19,000 a year, but the 20 women who are vying for his hand don't know that -- they've been led by the show's producers, and Evan himself, to believe that he has just inherited $50 million.

Creating a show like this is like lobbing a rock into a tree full of howler monkeys: You are guaranteed shrieking outrage and undivided attention until the next offensive thing comes along. Sadly, there's a lot to be upset about. Evan and the producers are lying to these women, and setting a gender-loaded trap for the last one in particular, to whom he must tell the truth. She will then have to face the unspoken question posed by the show: Are you a conniving, opportunistic woman or a sweet, understanding girl who immediately forgives a giant lie and public humiliation? Or, as the show puts it, will love or money prevail? (Note that the producers don't offer self-respect -- or healthy anger at the lie and the whole damn charade -- as an option.)

Evan is hoping to find someone who loves him for who he is; that's why he joined the show. Naturally, then, the best way to find honest love is to fib from the very beginning. By the time the women meet him, he has been transformed into Evan Wallace, a dashing millionaire. In a Pretty Woman-cum-Pygmalion-cum-My Fair Lady-type montage, we see how he has taken crammed tutorials about wine, horseback riding, ballroom dancing and the finer points of air-kissing -- not slobbering upon -- a lady's hand. By the time he rides up on a horse to meet the contestants, the transformation is complete. Well, nearly. When Evan tries to mount his trusty steed, he bonks his superhero-sized chin on the saddle.

This doesn't matter to the contestants, many of whom meld into a parade of gleaming, predatory teeth and bad eye makeup. "We're living in a fairy tale," one woman coos. "I am so a real-life princess right now." They heave and gasp when they spy the castle the show is passing off as Evan's home, and express pants-wetting delight about his supposed money. Worst of all, they start referring to Disney cartoons and resort to the "tall, dark and handsome" cliché to describe the hapless Evan: He's been transformed into a cardboard cutout prince, a one-size-fits-all fantasy.

Soon enough, the women's sweet smiles disintegrate into a meowfest. Their first conversations with Evan will be at a ball, and they have only 30 minutes to choose their gowns. It's worse than the annual wedding gown sale at Filene's Basement, where women line up for hours and then pounce on all the virginal gowns. Curly haired Heidi grabs two only to loudly proclaim that one of them must have been made for someone with no boobs at all, i.e., "Look at my great rack!" The sweetly disarming Zora can't find a dress that fits. Another contestant says, with poisonous pity, "Zora's just a different shape and a different size." The process is positively Darwinian: As one woman notes, "The obnoxious will survive."

It's a bit horrifying, the way many of the women fight to be chosen by someone they don't even know. He's like a prince, they keep whispering, as they try to elbow their way into a fairy tale. Pick me, love me! I haven't seen such strenuous preening since I watched a dog show, or one of those backstage documentaries about beauty pageants --flocks of glossy young women with their Preparation H (reduces puffiness), Vaseline (ensures that lips don't stick to teeth during those interminable smiles) and double-sided tape (for cleavage). Joe Millionaire is the ultimate unfeminist contest, a perverse wedding-pageant with an impostor as both prize and judge. It's your special day, as brides are told, and your worth as a woman has been affirmed because the knight in shining armor has picked you.

The fantasy of being chosen betrays a startling passivity: What if Cinderella dances with this prince she's supposed to automatically love and discovers he's a toad? The fairy tale is fuzzy on this conversation. Do they have chemistry, similar life goals and attitudes? Do they know they could develop a committed love after only one waltz?

Unfortunately, only Evan gets to decide, and even he isn't comfortable with choosing, with the power he's been given as the coveted millionaire. He has to evaluate each contestant during the course of one dance, and tremulously selects 12 of the 20 to go on to the next episode. But though he holds all the cards, he doesn't seem to know it. That nervousness is most unprincely -- and tells us worlds about why Evan decided to go on the show in the first place. He seems rather sweet and insecure. "What if they don't like me?" he frets. When one contestant invites him to an exercise class, he says, "I caught her eye." Well, yeah. He's unaccustomed to the fawning and feels deep discomfort with the lies he's already had to tell.

Some of the women, too, seem uneasy with the claws-out competition and greed. The quieter ones look at Evan with searching eyes, trying to see if there might be something under that pre-fab-prince surface.

One can only hope that this discomfort will lead to radical acts in future episodes. Perhaps Evan will realize that his insecurity over his salary and job have forced him to abandon his real self, the guy who said working construction was like being "Michelangelo on a massive piece of equipment." Maybe some of the women will walk away from the show. That, of course, would be a fairy-tale ending of a different sort: the possibility that Evan would tell the truth before he had to, that the women could be angry, could choose to be alone or find honest relationships of their own. It's nice to imagine Joe Millionaire participants casting off ill-fitting prince clothes and Cinderella shoes; unlikely, given the gravitational pull of fairy tales and legal contracts, but nice anyway. A girl can dream.

Noy Thrupkaew is a former Prospect writing fellow and a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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