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Millionaire rakes in viewers for reality muck

If you're still one of the very few who haven't bothered to spend a minute or two checking out the hot, new Fox reality show 'Joe Millionaire,' I have some advice: Watch it now, and get it over with. Then, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Alternatively, you could laugh until you feel sick. That's what I do, sort of like the early days of 'The Jerry Springer Show,' which opened my eyes to the amazing lengths people will go to just to humiliate themselves on national television while wearing really bad clothes.

Thanks to 'Joe,' and ABC's 'The Bachelorette,' the so-called reality shows are on a serious midseason roll. Which means that more and more tacky copycats will be rolled out one after another until :

a) We finally realize that the real fun ended with Darva Conger.

b) We discover the results are fixed. (It's happened before; remember Charles Van Doren and the quiz show scandals of the '50s?)

c) Heaven forbid, but somebody gets seriously injured or dies during a bug-eating or physical endurance competition.

Why, you may ask, is reality TV making such a splash with viewers? ('Bachelorette' crushed NB's 'West Wing' in that head-to-head matchup.) The answer probably has more to do with demographics Ñ the shows feature young people being young, acting stupid and taking risks. That's a perfect recipe for all those

twenty- and thirtysomething viewers who have outgrown MTV but haven't yet settled into the sedentary mind-set that appreciates sitcoms and police dramas.

I'm out of the demo, but I still get off on the guessing game aspect of who will end up as Ñ excuse the expression Ñ the survivor who gets the bachelor or the money or his or her own show.

But 'Joe Millionaire' breaks new ground. On so many levels, it's so godawful that you've simply got to see how low it can stoop before reaching the muck, which is exactly what happened last week when Joe's girls cleaned out the stables at the French ch‰teau where they're holed up. The women, as you surely know by now, are in France hoping to capture the affection of the charismatic Mr. Millioniare, ostensibly not knowing Ñ as viewers do now Ñ that Joe is really just a $19,000-a-year construction hack.

The editors on this show must be tearing their hair out. Twenty-eight-year-old Evan Marriott Ñ aka Joe Millionaire Ñ speaks in three- or four-word phrases. It must be a nightmare trying to make it sound as though he has anything to say.

He's a pleasant enough guy and has a swell smile. But I'm guessing the women are thinking that if it weren't for the big bucks and the TV exposure, life with Evan could get old in a hurry.

Of course, there's been massive amounts of chatter on the Internet speculating that Evan really is a rich guy, in which case the joke will be on the TV audience when we learn the truth. We'll all just have to wait for that Ñ and for the second installment of 'American Idol' premiering next week.

And for CBS' upcoming 'The Real Beverly Hillbillies' and the latest British reality imports, 'Coupling' and 'Manchild.'

It's getting ugly, folks. Hey, that's the reality.