Over time, some cultural products settle into a new critical importance, entering the canon in ways that were unexpected by anyone at the time they were made. So it is with I Wanna Marry Harry, the ill-fated 2014 reality TV show that was pulled from US airwaves and cancelled after just four episodes. I Wanna Marry Harry isn't just excellent trash TV; It's an exercise in gas-lighting unrivalled by any other show and, as such, should be considered the nadir of the entire post-2000 reality TV epoch.
As an ardent republican, I reacted to the announcement that the real-life Prince Harry would be marrying American actor Meghan Markle with a mixture of apathy and contempt, same as how I react to anything else. However, I very much enjoy watching reality TV in the guise of work, so when my editor suggested someone on the Broadly team might want to revisit I Wanna Marry Harry in light of the actual Harry's impending nuptials, I jumped at the chance.
The basic premise of I Wanna Marry Harry is simple: 12 American women, hand-picked for their looks, gullibility, and youthfulness (none are above 26), are sent to a British stately home that they persistently and mistakenly describe as a castle. Once there, they’re introduced to a mysterious “Sir” who disembarks from a helicopter with a security detail. It’s strongly implied that “Sir” is Prince Harry, although this isn’t explicitly confirmed until mid-way through the series by a butler named Kingsley, who is an irrepressible triumph and the real star of the show.
Over the course of I Wanna Marry Harry, contestants are shown competing in beauty pageants, bikini runways, and twerking competitions in the hope that they’ll be the one that steals Harry’s heart. The women believe that they're aiming for a role in the real-life British royal family as the consort of the man who was then third in line to the throne. In reality, “Harry” is actually Matt Hicks, an environmental consultant who dyed his blond hair and memorized facts about Prince Harry’s life for the show.
Ten episodes later of I Wanna Marry Harry later, I hate myself, but am also strangely compelled. It’s difficult to watch more than two episodes at a time—this is reality TV at its most heartless and cynical—but it’s also horrifyingly compelling, like watching blackhead extraction videos on YouTube.
The show begins by introducing us to Hicks, who looks not very much like Prince Harry and more like the sort of dude who wears loafers without socks and describes women as either "good girls" or "slags." By far the most alarming thing about Hicks is his habit of licking his lips while delivering creepy chat-up lines. He says things like “you’ve got a naughty little smile” or “I like a girl with a twinkle in her eye” completely flatly and without intonation, and the overall effect is less sexy and more menacing, like Patrick Bateman ordering an escort or a sex-offender gynecologist preparing for a gloveless pelvic exam. Astonishingly, these chat-up lines don’t actively repel the female contestants, who throw themselves into the task of winning a real-life prince’s heart with gusto.
Watch: British Comedy's Rising Star Michaela Coel on Swapping God for Filthy Jokes
The contestants fit the standard-issue reality TV show template. There’s good-girl nursery school teacher Rose Copeland, an early favorite. Restaurant hostess Kelley Andrews is the country-girl turned full-time Harry obsessive. And of course, no reality TV show is complete without a resident Mean Girl, a spot filled by Texan girl Meghan Jones.
By far the best thing about I Wanna Marry Harry are the genius stratagems used to convince the contestants that “Sir”—as Kingsley calls Hicks before the big reveal—really is a member of the British royal family.
Hicks is never without his security detail; I greatly enjoyed the scene in which he was bundled into a waiting helicopter during a fake security alert. Paparazzi gatecrash woodland dates, and bystanders scream “Harry” while Hicks takes contestant Karina Kennedy on a yacht trip down the Thames. Other devices are more budget, like a photoshopped picture of Hicks and Prince William placed prominently on the mantelpiece of his private suite. Hicks retains an air of coy mystery while talking vaguely of “charitable endeavors” and time served in the military—but even with the production team's ruses, it’s hokey as hell, and later in the series Copeland realizes the deception and is duly sent home.
Like much reality TV, I Wanna Marry Harry is profoundly anti-feminist. Women are pitted against each other; judged on their looks; and encouraged to revert to infantile, high school stereotypes. “I feel like Rose is not good enough for Prince Harry,” says one contestant cattily. The contestants criticise 25-year-old sales rep Maggie Toraason for drinking too much. (“I don’t think I drink too much, I think I drink enough,” Torasson slurs in response.) In an excruciating scene, all the women demand that Chelsea Brookshire, the only black contestant, teaches them how to twerk—only for them to gang up on Brookshire and bully her out of the house afterwards.
But the most alarming thing about I Wanna Marry Harry isn’t its sexist or racist undertones. It’s the fact that I Wanna Marry Harry effectively gaslights a group of women—whom Hicks himself accurately describes as “out of his league” on more than one occasion—into seeing him as an attractive romantic proposition, rather than a pasty Brit in wraparound sunglasses who says things like, “Shall we go for an after-dinner relax?"
For the most part, the contestants are pathetically grateful for any sliver of attention thrown their way. “That was the best date of my life,” Andrews says after Hicks drives her to an American diner for a date. She believes the Prince Harry ruse whole-heartedly; she rats out Jones to Hicks for being bitchy so Jones is kicked out, and attempts to sabotage Kennedy, a favourite to win, by telling Hicks that she still carries a picture of her ex in her wallet.
“I would love you if you gave me a chance,” Andrews tells Hicks. “I’ve been regal this whole time. I just wish I could be the girl you need in your life to make you be Prince Harry to the fullest.” The scene where a distraught Andrews is sent home, after her second sabotage attempt backfires, is genuinely crushing.
Andrews aside, the treatment of all the female contestants in I Wanna Marry Harry is appalling. At every stage, the contestants are encouraged to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes. As an Orwellian exercise in groupthink, I Wanna Marry Harry relies on multiple self-deceptions. Firstly, the contestants have to be deluded enough to believe that Prince Harry—who once dressed up as a Nazi and is a member of the British royal family and, therefore, almost certainly inbred—is worth dating, rather than someone to be avoided at all costs. The second self-deception is that Hicks—who has a perpetually frightened look and the charisma of a fish—looks anything like Harry at all.
In an interview with Splinter News, actress Kimberly Birch—the show's eventual victor—laid out some of the brainwashing tactics used to gaslight her into believing Hicks really was a prince. Even by the egregious standards of reality TV, these were especially dystopic.
"The whole time, you’re confronting them, saying, 'This is all set up,' and they’re like, 'OK, yeah, you’re going crazy,'" says Hicks, explaining she’d doubted throughout that Hicks was actually Prince. Producers would stand outside contestants’ rooms and whisper; “You have to get him back to Buckingham Palace. The Royal Family’s very upset. They’re not happy about the show. It’s this new thing they’ve never done before, and they’re trying to be up and up with social media, and the way that the world is.”
Birch claims that the producers even brought in a fake therapist to discuss their concerns. “You have to trust the people here, it’s not good for you to keep questioning,” the therapist—who was actually a member of the production team—allegedly told them.
I Wanna Marry Harry is the most-messed up thing I’ve ever seen, and that includes a viral video of a guy fucking a horse that some boys in the year above me at school once made me watch. This isn’t intended as a criticism of the show—there is so much that is good about I Wanna Marry Harry, like the scene where a contestant plays a foot piano in high heels during a pageant contest, Torasson’s frosted-blue eyeshadow, or the bit where they all play Twister during a toga party. (“I can’t believe we got to party with Prince Harry,” Copeland says at the time. “He’s such a party boy!”) Leaving all these wonderful moments aside, however, the overall emotion I got on concluding I Wanna Marry Harry was not dissimilar to how I feel after eating a fully-loaded deep-dish pizza: sated, but also bloated and full of self-hate.
The show concludes with a final cruel twist. Hicks sends Kennedy home as runner-up. She takes the rejection in total silence, and seems truly distraught. “I was finally believing in love and what’s embarrassing was that I was so wrong,” she sobs. “ What were you thinking? He didn’t like you. It’s a horrible feeling to know you were wrong all along. I believed in something that was just in my head.” Watching Kennedy cry, I marvel: This show is truly fucked up.
Now all that’s left is for the grand reveal. Hicks tells the show's victor Birch that he is not actually Prince Harry, but a totally average dude with some intonation issues. Here, the I Wanna Harry producers had one final surprise up their sleeve: If Birch still chose to stick with Hicks regardless of his deception, both of them would be rewarded a cash prize. Perhaps because she is a professional actress, Birch does an extremely good job of pretending that she doesn’t care that she’s been systematically gaslighted and manipulated by Hicks throughout the entire process.
“I still like you just the same,” she says, and is rewarded with $250,000, which she still has to share with Hicks.
“I’m so glad you’re the person I thought you were,” says Hicks, clearly happy he chose a contestant docile enough not to call him out on his deception.
“This is the ultimate fairy tale ending,” Birch shrieks, as they kiss in a snow-covered winter wonderland that is actually the back yard of the stately home, dressed up to look like Christmas. She’s right. Fairy tales are always fucked up, and I Wanna Marry Harry is the most fucked up one of all.