The needy overcome the contrivances in ABC's Secret Millionaire
03/04/11 09:51 AM
Love Kitchen matriarchs Helen and Ellen; millionaire Dani Johnson ABC photo and photo from her website
Premiering: Sunday, March 6th at 7 p.m. (central) on ABC
Starring: Millionaires who give some of their money away to worthy recipients
Produced by: Grant Mansfield, Claire O'Donohoe, Natalka Znak, Leslie Garvin
By ED BARK
ABC's answer to Undercover Boss is pretty much an exact replica. Except that the needy recipients in Secret Millionaire don't directly work for the well-heeled benefactors who get all teary-eyed before bettering their lives.
Originally announced as part of ABC's fall lineup, Secret Millionaire instead arrives Sunday, supplanting the like-minded Extreme Makeover: Home Edition for a while. And although the situations may be contrived, the first group of people on the receiving ends of the millionaire's checks all seem to be eminently worthy. In fact it's hard to envision a worthier twosome than 82-year-old twins Helen and Ellen, who cook and serve meals for the needy and homeless at Knoxville, Tennessee's The Love Kitchen.
Dani Johnson, a self-made millionaire who herself was once homeless, descends upon Knoxville's "neglected neighborhood of Western Heights" after first introducing herself to viewers as a loving married mother of five who lives in a San Antonio suburb.
Johnson, whose website touts her First Steps to Wealth book and other means of becoming fabulously rich, says she "bootstrapped it, baby" after being raised in a crummy home.
"I don't have good memories for my childhood at all," she says. "My parents were very neglectful. They were on welfare."
So now she wants to "give back." And during the course of Sunday's premiere episode, Johnson writes $100,000 worth of checks to four recipients after first pretending she's part of a "documentary on volunteering," according to Secret Millionaire's very sober-voiced narrator.
Johnson also spend six days in a dumpy one-bedroom apartment, where she discovers "frickin' bugs," lives on $40 in food stamps and instantly feels hot and sweaty. Furthermore, "I couldn't sleep last night, because that's not a bed. It's a trampoline."
Western Heights is described as deprived by the narrator and dangerous by a cabbie who drives her there. Still, the very transparently busty and attractive Johnson is unafraid to promenade to and fro. A convenience store clerk tips her to Love Kitchen while a supposed chance sidewalk encounter with a bearded dude leads her to the non-profit Joy of Music school, where impeccably behaved needy kids learn how to sing and play instruments. One of them belts out the old chestnut "Oh Shenandoah." He may not be American Idol material, but Johnson is bowled over.
Here's the thing, though. Love Kitchen can use the money. So can the Joy of Music school. So can Special Spaces, which constructs "dream bedrooms" for kids with "life-challenging illnesses." And so can the hard-pressed parents of a five-year-old girl named Daisy. That's the overriding saving grace of Secret Millionaire, even if Johnson can be more than a little off-putting and self-aggrandizing. Particularly when she says, "I'm on my way to my first gifting."
Helen and Ellen of course will be the climactic giftees. And their enthusiasm and love of what they do can't help but stir the emotions while making fans of us all. Says one of Love Kitchen's volunteers, "Heaven's missin' a few angels, 'cause we got two of 'em right here."
Helen and Ellen in fact deserve their own show. So Oprah Winfrey's intendedly uplifting OWN network should get busy on this while they're still able to do what they do.
Meanwhile, a show that can make you feel this way can't be all bad. Even if its clandestine millionaires can be more than a little grating.
"Who gets what and how do ya pick that? It's definitely a challenge," Johnson says before hitting her four checkpoints.
Instead let's take it from Helen, a most grateful beneficiary: "Let me tell you something. She put a spark in my heart that I can do more."
That's more like it. And in the end, that's what makes Secret Millionaire a show whose ends trump its means.