More than half a decade into this populist wave, “Undercover Billionaire” set out to test the American Dream. Where else to run such an experiment in 2021 but on reality television? The result is compelling both as entertainment and cultural fodder.
Energetic entrepreneur Elaine Culotti dove into the job head first. With the experience behind her, Culotti insists the American Dream is “alive and well.”
Discovery’s synopsis of the show makes this premise explicit. “The American dream is still alive, and this time, three self-made entrepreneurs have set out to prove it. With only 90-days and nothing but 100 bucks in their pockets, they will put one million dollars on the line to go undercover and build a thriving million-dollar business for a small town in the US,” reads the network’s website.
While it relies on some of reality TV’s familiar flourishes, the show is probably better described as a docuseries. In a Jan. 18 phone interview, I asked Culotti, a successful real-estate developer, interior designer, and farm-to-table farmer, if the show dramatized or scripted any of her roller-coaster experience starting from scratch with $100. No way, she said. “This is 100 percent real. It’s 100 percent real,” Culotti emphasized.
“It’s not meant to be looked at as reality television, it’s looked at to be as an education. It’s educational. This is an educational business platform,” she added. “This is teaching you, ‘So what? So what, get up and do it again. So what, go over it, so what, go under it, go around it, go through it.”
“This is a pull your pants, pull your socks up, get your sh-t together, you’ve got one chance at it. So what? Go on. What’s your next move?” Culotti continued, insisting, “There’s no plan. You couldn’t plan it. I promise you, you couldn’t.”
That’s generally the best recipe for unscripted series, and “Undercover Billionaire” is a great example. Culotti’s mother lived out this experience without the safety valve. An orphan, she found herself on the streets at 18 with $100 in her pocket.
I was curious whether the camera crew that stuck to Culotti like glue helped her turn that $100 into a business. “The people that can really help you are not the people that are warm to the camera crew or the people that want to have a camera on them for some reason,” she said. “So navigating the distance between those two types of people is the sweet spot.”
“Generally,” said Culotti, “the camera crew is helpful, because it does open a door. But like when I was trying to get a place to stay, and the place that I was going to go in and sleep in, was really, really rough. And I can tell you that the owner was not happy having a camera crew in there. Right? So you can imagine that I had to really make a lot of promises that I didn’t even know if I could keep in order to have a place to stay and have a camera crew.” That happened more than once, according to Culotti, particularly because of COVID restrictions.
While Washington’s populist champions lament elite ignorance of the declining American Dream, Culotti thinks critics have the bubble backwards. “We don’t often get out of the bubbles that we’re in,” she told me. “Certainly at my level of earning and where I live, and what my life’s like, I don’t get out of my bubble and get down and dirty into that situation where it’s do or die.”
The show dropped Culotti and her $100 into Fresno, where she says “there was more tenacity … than I have seen in the last 20 years.”
“And all I had to do is go out and look for it,” Culotti reflected.
“Do you think the entrepreneurial conditions in this country still allow for everyday people to find success as entrepreneurs?” I asked.
Culotti replied with excitement. “Oh my G-d, now more than ever!” she said. Pointing to growth in the tech and service industries, Culotti asked, “Where does the opportunity stop?”
“You know where it stops?” she continued. “It stops with drugs. If you’re messed up, you’re not going to be able to do anything.” Culotti’s bursting optimism even extends to the pandemic’s effect on entrepreneurs, arguing it’s going to “really create some incredible startup businesses.”
Of course, “Undercover Billionaire” is not a perfect test of the American Dream. It is, however, focused as much on the working people of each community as it is on the entrepreneurs—and with some deeply moving results.
Discovery’s decision to wade into this wonky debate with such a brash and ringing pop cultural endorsement of American resilience is a refreshing counterpoint to the daily swirl of bad news. We can certainly argue about the conditions of this corporate media experiment, and there’s no question the billionaire class is soaring at the expense of working Americans, but beyond the gloss, what Culotti and her peers found is that our communities remain populated with hardworking people eager to put their blood, sweat, and tears into small business. More controversially, they also found systems in place that made smart entrepreneurship possible.
When Culotti pointed to drugs as an impediment to the American Dream, she touched on the deeper cultural problems plaguing so many communities suffering in this changing economy. With so much wreckage to explore, the good news gets lost.
At the very least, “Undercover Billionaire” will entertain you. But it’ll also introduce you to some remarkable people in places like Fresno and Erie who represent a resilient American workforce strong enough to find success in the system, whatever you think of it.
New episodes of “Undercover Billionaire” stream Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m. ET on Discovery Plus.