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A genuine winner in fake reality

Unwitting mark is hero of 'Schmo'

In the fourth episode of the reality show "Lap of Luxury," Earl, a 62-year-old ex-Marine, is voted out of the mansion. The contestants have gotten to know and like one another by this time, and a few of them start to cry after the vote is tallied. The one who takes it the hardest is Matt, a law school dropout who questions, with tears streaming down his face, why he agreed to be on the show.

"Nothing is worth this -- no amount of money . . . " he says. "It's too much pressure."

What Matt doesn't realize is that Earl, the man he is feeling so much emotion for, is no Marine Corps veteran. He's an actor. They're all actors. In fact, every line, except Matt's, is scripted. Every contest is rigged. The so-called "Lap of Luxury" is actually Spike TV's "The Joe Schmo Show," which concludes tonight at 9, and Matt -- a pizza-delivery guy who refers to himself as "just a guy from Pittsburgh" -- is the schmo. And the show's unwitting hero.

Matt is the only "real" contestant on this fake reality show that promises a paltry $100,000 as its grand prize. Not surprisingly, Matt is poised to win. One by one, a parade of stereotyped contestants -- the gay guy, the good girl, the rich girl, the schemer -- has been voted off the show. Each contestant is represented by a collector's plate with his or her picture on it, and when someone is ousted, Ralph, the smarmy host, gives a speech about returning to "your sad existence working for the Man" and then hurls that person's plate into the fireplace.

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," he says. "You're dead to us." Smash! Cue the throbbing tribal drums.

The truly remarkable aspect of "Joe Schmo" isn't its cheesy send-up of other reality shows or its behind-the-scenes shots of producers gasping at unexpected events, it is the casting of Matt Kennedy Gould.

Matt is unlike anyone you've ever seen on television. He's honest and open, vulnerable and humble, kind and affectionate -- the kind of guy who roots for the underdog and hugs people he barely knows, the kind of guy whose claws aren't nearly sharp enough to win a real reality show. "Terms of Endearment" is one of his favorite movies, for goodness sake.

Sure, he schemes against another contestant at one point, but it's because he has a crush on her, and she likes someone else.

"Like I said many times before," Matt says, "I just want a house, a dog, and a girl."

The reality craze is clearly dwindling, but with its clever parody of the genre and its refreshing star, "The Joe Schmo Show" almost makes you sad to see it end.

At first it's easy to feel sorry for Matt -- the poor guy's getting duped on national television, after all -- but once it becomes clear what a decent, genuine person he is, you feel sorrier for the actors. When Matt says, "I tried my hardest not to lie," they almost seem to squirm.

The contests to win the red, feathery immunity robe, which protects its wearer from being voted out, are unabashedly cheesy. One requires them to model one another's underwear to see if the others can guess whose it is. In another, they smear themselves in honey and roll around in money. The worst one has to be the contest in which they each cannonball into the pool to see who can get a model's white T-shirt wet and reveal the clue beneath it.

Matt's eyes frequently widen in surprise, but he seems to buy the "Lap of Luxury." Or does he? Every time an actor goofs his character's story or lets a "real" moment slip, Matt catches it. "Are you lying?" he asks one of them.

After a meeting with one of the supposed network executives, Matt wonders out loud if the "executive" is an actor. You can see the panic wash over the actors' faces. They genuinely seem to like Matt, and they're nervous, worried about his reaction when he learns the truth.

Will he be crushed? Will he laugh it off and hug them all? Or will he shock them all with what he knows?

Talks are apparently underway for a second season of "Joe Schmo," but it seems highly unlikely that Spike TV could find another schmo as genuinely captivating as Matt. The channel should take a lesson from the floundering second round of "Joe Millionaire," another "let's con the contestants" show, and quit while it's ahead.

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