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Be-all-you-can-be TV

Whether it's your hair, your clothes, your house or your life, there's a show clamoring to make you over -- but be careful what you wish for.

August 10, 2003|Janet Saidi | Special to The Times

By now it should be apparent to all but the most oblivious TV watcher: Everything and everyone is subject to a revision.

Whether your goal is to enhance your breasts, your basement or your basic view on life, chances are you'll find a television show about it. The quintessential couch potato experience -- watching TV -- has become the portal to the ultimate activity: total life conversion.

And the genre is evolving.

Some of the more established shows in this rejuvenated genre are -- like weeds, or "Law & Order" and "CSI" -- spawning offshoots. Where once one "Trading Spaces" was sufficient, this show about teams that do over each other's homes now has a family spinoff and a week specifically devoted to college students.

But there are bigger changes afoot as the makeover genre spreads. Once again taking inspiration from British reality programs that mix intense personal dramas with how-to tips on topics ranging from homes to hair gel, the latest crop of shows is bringing fresh elements of surprise and are even tweaking long-held assumptions about the human condition. Nothing is off-limits anymore.

Take Shelley, the 22-year-old South London nightclub dancer from dire circumstances who took only 28 days to ride a horse for the first time and become a successful show-jumper, impressing the upper-crusty set in the process, on BBC America's "Faking It." The episode wasn't just about appearance makeovers; it focused on the drama of a young woman trying bravely to reinvent herself.

"People watch, number one, because they love the emotional journey," says Paul Lee, chief operating officer at BBC America, which has brought British reality-makeover staples like "Changing Rooms" and "What Not to Wear," as well as "Faking It," into prime time.

And then, of course, people and homes get redone at the same time. Recently, we've seen John, the farm boy in jeans and cowboy boots, living in a bare apartment, remade into a manicured Casanova who actually stops to re-moisturize after making mousse in his redesigned, state-of-the-art kitchen, in Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." The breakout success of that show has earned it two airings on Bravo parent NBC's "Must-See" Thursday-night lineup, in condensed 30-minute form.

Even scripted shows are getting into the act: FX's "Nip/Tuck" focuses unflinchingly on the world of plastic surgery, territory also covered on ABC's prime-time "Extreme Makeovers."

Lee uses really big words such as "transformation," "empowerment" and even "democracy" in talking about the shows.

"All our participants enter [the programs] and think, 'This will be a bit of fun -- for God's sake it's just a room,' " Lee says. "And then their entire identities are reconstituted, and for many of them it's an incredible experience.... There's the moment five moments before the end [of "What Not to Wear"] where it's not about clothes, where they say, 'Is this really who I want to be? Who have I lost and can I regain that?' "

Here we thought makeover programs were just about whether you should get a you-know-what job, only to find it's about the reconstitution of people's identities, a move from physical to metaphysical, all in a 30-minute TV program?

The Cinderella factor

The fact is, the transformation story Lee is talking about -- the magic of being remade into one's more glamorous, true self -- has universal appeal going back to the Pygmalion myth and Cinderella, and more recently that Cinderella factor helped spark the enormous success of the film "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

Talk programs like "The Oprah Winfrey Show" tapped into the Cinderella magic years ago with impromptu makeovers of audience participants who would reveal their new look at the end of the program. And PBS was one of the first to apply this magic to a building with "This Old House," which debuted in 1979.

The current crop of makeover shows combine the transformation story with the sabotage aspects of "Candid Camera" to come up with programs that are grabbing audiences, to the delight of ratings-focused TV executives. "Trading Spaces," perhaps the most established in the makeover genre, has garnered some of the highest ratings ever for TLC and attracts an aggregate of 11 million viewers weekly. Now some of the newcomers are upping the action and trying to cash in as well.

Newcomer "Ambush Makeover," a syndicated show from Fox's Twentieth Television, follows a team of hyper stylists on a rampage through 26 cities in America, surprising unsuspecting pedestrians with a daylong, impromptu makeover, followed by a climactic "reveal" of the transformed person to friends and families.

"Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," a ratings sensation for the once-obscure Bravo, features an "Avenger"-style team of five fabulous gay men who burst into the apartments and lives of fashion-starved bachelors, providing a complete cultural, physical, social -- and possibly emotional/spiritual -- makeover.

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