The new unscripted series “Secret Millionaire” (7 p.m., Fox) follows rich folks as they pretend to be average Joes working for minimum wage. During their descent into below-average-dom, they will meet new co-workers and make new friends and decide who among them is deserving of a big cash prize.
The concept for this series is interesting on a number of levels. As reality television, it marks a complete inversion of the 2003 Fox hit “Joe Millionaire,” when construction worker Evan Marriott pretended to be rich and got to entertain a bevy of social-climbing beauties in a French Chateau.
It also strikes the opposite tone of “The Simple Life,” the long-running reality series about spoiled and starved socialites acting like brats and disrupting the lives of decent, ordinary people in the hinterlands.
This role-reversal smacks of a fairy tale about kings and princes passing themselves off as peasants to see how the other half lives.
For all of its upbeat “’tis the season of giving” hype, “Secret Millionaire” serves to remind us how our society has plunged in one generation from rough middle-class equality to near feudal chasms between the very rich and the barely-getting-by.
“Millionaire” also hearkens back to Depression-era comedies like “My Man Godfrey” (1936), “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) and “It Happened One Night” (1934), in which rich and disillusioned characters gain wisdom by rubbing elbows with what was then called “the common man.”
Then, as now, Hollywood wants us to feel good about the innate decency of “ordinary” folks, but they prefer when the message is delivered by a rich person or a celebrity.
• On many talk shows, the musician performs but is not allowed to join the conversation. That’s not the case on “Spectacle: Elvis Costello with ...” (8 p.m., Sundance). This 13-part series kicks off with an hour-long chat and several performances by Costello and his first guest, Elton John.
John spends a lot of time citing and praising early influences like Leon Russell and Laura Nyro, then sitting down at the piano and explaining just how they changed the way he heard and composed his music.
Future episodes include conversations with Lou Reed, the Police, James Taylor, Rufus Wainwright and a chat with Bill Clinton about the similarities between jazz improvisation and political leadership. Well worth watching.
Tonight’s other highlights
• A celebrated dance instructor assembles a troupe for a Shanghai performance in the documentary “Jacques D’Amboise in China” (5:30 p.m., HBO).
• An outcast reindeer and an elf with dreams of dentistry triumph in the 1964 holiday favorite “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (7 p.m., CBS).
• Al Roker hosts “Christmas in Rockefeller Center” (7 p.m., NBC).
• A cold corpse casts a pall at a comfort-food competition on “Pushing Daisies” (7 p.m., ABC).
• A proposed casino sparks a deadly tribal war on “Life” (8 p.m., NBC).
• Nominations for the 2009 Grammy Awards are announced on “Grammy Nominations Concert Live!” (8 p.m., CBS).
• Brief encounters on “The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show” (9 p.m., CBS). Usher performs.