Face Off

TV makes a sport out of tormenting the homely and insecure

Because we all secretly entertain the idea that a vast reservoir of greatness lurks untapped somewhere inside us, and that someone with Yoda-like insight will come along and unleash that special ability, we find ourselves fascinated by the spectacle of makeovers. At least, that's the rationale I use to explain the plethora of programs on TV featuring some poor sucker submitting to the whims of people who presumably know them better than they know themselves.

That most of these programs are baldly in need of their own production makeover is somewhat ironic. Only MTV's I Want a Famous Face has the skillful editing and musical soundtrack of a polished TV show. But, in another example of unintentional irony, the presentation behind these shows ultimately proves less important than their unruly content--which is another way of saying that what truly matters is who they are inside.

ABC's Extreme Makeover, which qualifies as a forebear in this gore-spattered reality genre, is like much of ABC's other programming, which is to say, it's creatively neutered. Part of the problem is that the show's narrative weaves around each week like a celebrity on her way to a third DWI: Now the makeover subjects are talking about their self-esteem! Now they're getting surgery! Now they're babbling about fulfilling their potential! Now a bunch of ersatz tastemakers are rushing the still-bandaged beauty into what feels like a bargain basement reenactment of Julia Roberts's shopping scene in Pretty Woman!

While the great permeability between high and low fashion may be the most invigorating and democratic thing about American style, there's no way around the basic fact that the makeovers on this show look cheap. We see these guinea pigs poured into Cher-like couture gowns--and I have to admit, I held my breath until I heard host Sam Saboura correctly pronounce "couture," because it seemed unlikely for a while--before being painted and coiffed by a team of L.A. experts. But nobody bothers to pay attention to the way the subjects comport themselves.

As a result, you get woman after woman wrecking her big "reveal," as recent subject Kacie did by lurching into a hotel lobby with terrible posture and an even worse high-heeled gait. A real makeover team would include a Henry Higgins to provide lessons on self-confident posture and carriage--thus selling the idea that the people who've gotten the makeover really have undergone a profound transformation. What these women have gained is a spackling knifeful of foundation makeup and a dress they can't zip up for themselves.

It's even harder to swallow on Fox's makeover entry, The Swan. At least ABC presents its show with a benign premise--rescuing the ugly from themselves. Fox clearly encouraged The Swan's producers to tap into the ugly side of that transformation fantasy: the competitive advantage that being beautiful offers. The results are not pretty.

The Swan's premise--16 formerly average-looking women are turned into megababes and pitted against one another for a meaningless beauty-pageant title--is the first clue that improving women's self-image is nowhere on the show's agenda. The second is the scene in which the panel of experts meticulously details all the physical shortcomings each untransformed woman has. The contestants are complicit in this damaged-goods inventory, damply detailing their many flaws with great drama and even greater distortion of perspective. When one moderately cute woman sniffled that middle school had been awful because she was so ugly, I actually snapped at the screen, "Everyone's ugly at age 12. Get over it!"

A lot of lip service is paid to how the contestants are renovating the inside as well as the outside. But the reveals, in which the women see themselves in a mirror for the first time in three months, don't really support that argument. Woman after woman stands there and babbles about her new beauty while show creator Nely Galan--a real-life embodiment of Jennifer Coolidge's character work in Best of Show and A Mighty Wind--simpers about the virtues of "embracing transformation."

And again, they still haven't taught these women how to stand up straight or walk in high heels. Everyone here lurches toward the mirror as if they just had an epidural.

 

After the sheer ugliness of The Swan, MTV's I Want a Famous Face is a refreshing change for two reasons. First, it completely ditches the myth of self-empowerment through makeovers and embraces the lunacy of pulling a surgical All About Eve on Brad Pitt. Second, it's a slick MTV package, with clear infographics, strikingly framed shots and fast cuts, and a modern-feeling soundtrack.

I Want a Famous Face may well be the most honest extreme-makeover show, and it's probably not a coincidence that this is the only one where the subjects pay for their own surgery. The program lets the subjects explain in their own words why they think their lives will improve once monster-sized Pamela Lee bazooms are stuffed into their chests. And the editing slyly raises questions about the wisdom of celebrity worship.

You can chew on the irony of icon-maker MTV presenting this notion when you're averting your eyes during the extended surgery scenes. This is the grossest of the shows. Every grinding, tearing, and cutting sound can be heard while a sea of blood and bits of random flesh jiggle or ooze around. All I could think while I watched an episode where a pre-op transsexual attempts to become more J. Lo-like was that it's rare to see such a direct metaphor for self-loathing: Every procedure, from lowering a hairline to adding buttock implants, seems to broadcast a bone-deep desperation to obliterate oneself and be someone else.

After spending a few hours on any of the other shows, you may be filled with self-loathing too. Lucky for you, all you have to do is change the channel.

 
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