April 22, 2004

Take One

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Last week, the finale of The Apprentice was one of the most watched reality television moments of all time, as it should have been. It was a terrific first season. Why? Because, as far as we could tell, the contestants were themselves, convinced that their own style and personality would win them the job. The popularity of shows like Survivor and The Real World can be explained by the same reasoning; the contestants, especially in the original seasons, put forward no pretense, and, just by doing that, they became characters, as if in a sitcom or a film. But now, reality television has reached an unfortunate low. Instead of letting people be themselves, shows like Extreme Makeover and I Want a Famous Face encourage people to change their appearance so drastically that they actually believe that they can become better people. The absolute worst of these new shows is The Swan, which, unsurprisingly, airs on Fox, and is beyond disturbing. Advertised as giving women “a second chance at life,” and as a series that turns “fairy tale into reality,” The Swan selects certain contestants who are originally not-so-attractive to transform themselves “physically and emotionally” into future beauty pageant contestants. On an episode last week, one contestant, whose self esteem was so low that she thought her husband should leave her, was encouraged by a team of so-called experts to have the following work done: a brow lift, an eye lift, a nose job, liposuction of the chin and cheeks, regular visits to a dermatologist, Lasik eye surgery, collagen implants in the upper lip, a tummy tuck, breast augmentation, liposuction of the thighs, zoom bleaching and veneers in the mouth, and gum tissue recontouring. Quite a list of “treatments,” isn’t it? Sure, this woman was originally quite unattractive (sorry), but after all that work, she looked like a plastic action figure. So, it turns out that the show turns fairy tale not into reality, but into a nightmare.

Why would someone think that doing all of that makes him or her a better person? Some might be concerned about being attractive to others, but this woman was already married. The fact that her self esteem was based so strongly on her physical appearance meant that she needed counseling, not to be cut up, nipped, and tucked. Of course, it’s not just women, either. MTV’s I Want a Famous Face, which absurdly boasts that its contestants have “endured painful and sometimes risky reconstructive surgery to look like their favorite celebrity,” recently featured two twenty year old males, Mike and Matt from Arizona, who wanted to look like Brad Pitt. First of all, I really don’t know what Brad Pitt has that I don’t have, but regardless (since I tend to lose that particular argument), you should have seen these two kids after their plastic surgery. They looked like crude, computer-generated images of Hanson brothers. It was absurd, and I honestly wonder where they find these people.

I also wonder what the board room meetings are like where these brilliant ideas develop. One executive says, “Let’s try and fix people’s deep psychological troubles.” Another adds, “We could do it with plastic surgery!” And then the room erupts in applause. Is that how it goes? I mean, these shows are worse than Dinotopia, That ’80s Show, and that short-lived Andy Richter show about controlling the universe or something. And I get the sneaking suspicion that the people who abandoned all logic and reason to watch those shows are watching these makeover shows as well. Don’t get me wrong; I watch garbage on television all the time. It can be addictive. But The Swan and its herd, so to speak, of similar shows seem offensive, and even give good reality TV shows, like The Apprentice, a bad name.

The entire series of The Apprentice this season was perhaps better than any other single reality television season ever because it was actually real, while these makeover shows are based entirely on fa