'Starting Over' provides the reality shows truly require
Not a superficial quick fix, the show follows women through weeks of turmoil.
By RENE LYNCH
LOS ANGELES TIMES
We get it, we get it -- take gobs of money, hunky Ty Pennington or those "Queer Eye" guys and you can fix absolutely anything. But what good does that do you? Go ahead and check. Any sign of the "Extreme Makeover" crew at your front door?
These shows are TV crack. They lure viewers who in some recess of their brains should know better but somehow believe they'll learn something on "Trading Spaces," "Clean Sweep," "Kitchen Accomplished." Then they too can magically remake their bilevel ranch-style home into a two-story Spanish hacienda. Of course, these shows all come with a fleet of worker bees who toil off-camera to get it all ready in time for the reveal.
Surely you're familiar with "reveals" -- they're the money shots of makeover reality TV, the moment the show has been leading to, when the curtain is pulled back on something, or someone, that has been revamped, repainted and remade. It's now shiny, new and barely recognizable. Cue the oohs and ahhs.
The emotional appeal of watching these lucky people's instanttransformations are undeniable; it's not for nothing that the "Extreme Makeover" franchise has turned into a TV juggernaut. But still, these shows can't dodge the nagging question: Can remodeling your life really be this easy?
Amid this increasingly by-the-numbers genre, there's one makeover TV show that manages to stand apart. "Starting Over," now nearing the end of its third season on NBC (an abridged version is rebroadcast on TLC), takes six women whose lives have fallen down around their ankles and enrolls them in a psychological boot camp of sorts. Not surprising considering the scope of what has to happen to make the show work, it's on every weekday, not just once a week. Two blunt-talking so-called "life coaches" and a clinical psychologist (who, it so happens, is the show's sole male) lead the women through intensive one-on-one and group therapies and exercises to help them face their innermost demons and, you know, change.
The women who do, graduate. Those who don't, get booted.
If you think this sounds like it's got all the makings of a catfight while women peel off their dirty laundry for the world to see -- you'd be right.
The effect, though, is far from the Jerry Springer-esque "I don't know who's my baby's daddy!" staples of daytime TV. Housemates have included a woman who gained more than 100 pounds in part because she couldn't face relationships with men, another who finds she can't seem to build relationships with other women, a woman who seems to attract confrontation wherever she goes, and an alcoholic who gave up her son for adoption and now, 18 years later, is clinging to her sobriety as she prepares for the soon-to-arrive moment when she must look at the man he has become and explain her decision.
The good stuff
It's not long before common threads arise -- whether it's sexual abuse, parental neglect, bottomless feelings of insecurity -- that tell all too clearly how many people are scarred by their childhoods.
Yet "Starting Over" is a daily dose of life-affirming stuff and remarkably upbeat. At the end of the day, these women are told in no uncertain terms: "Get over it."
But they also are given the tools to do just that.
Sometimes these exercises seem silly. A woman who lost her son and daughter to illness and whose home was swallowed by a fire that engulfed everything, including cherished mementos of her late children, is asked to wear on the outside the grief she clings to on the inside. It is, literally, a black cape, upon which she has pinned reminders of her losses. The cape forces her to accept that she hasn't dealt with her grief for her children -- and brings her face to face with her fear that if she "moves on" she'll somehow betray their memories. But after this and several other tearful sessions, she begins to take the first fledgling steps toward reconciling herself with the loss.
Unlike "Kitchen Accomplished," "Clean Sweep" and "Extreme Makeover," which all focus on dramatic (and largely superficial) change on the outside, "Starting Over" goes inside -- and everyone knows that's where real, and lasting, change begins.