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A chance to start over and bicker a bit too

September 08, 2003|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Andy, as they say, has issues. On each rectangular plastic block, she writes a word she associates with her unhappiness. "Embittered." "Domineering." "Fat!!!" "Women." After two painstaking tries, "Perfectionist." And a couple of dozen more.

After Andy stacks the blocks, her "life coach," Rhonda, explains the point of the exercise: to help this bright and attractive but abrasive woman understand that she has built her own "wall of excuses," created her own barriers.

Clarity won't come too easily, however, for Andy or the other five women trying to revamp their lives while living together in a Chicago house in "Starting Over," a new syndicated series (weekdays at noon on KNBC in Los Angeles) that is being billed as daytime's first "reality" offering. Then again, easy progress doesn't make good television.

The series, from "Real World" producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, combines the voyeuristic pleasure of that MTV hit, the female bonding and bickering of "The View" and the uplifting spirit of "Dr. Phil." Unintentionally, "Starting Over" sends a mixed message: The theme is helping women empower themselves to change their lives, but it's so addictive it could turn viewers into couch potatoes.

Along with Andy, a 32-year-old aspiring broadcaster whose main problem is her deep distrust of women, the initial cast comprises Nyanza, 30, a recently divorced lawyer who wants to shed her materialistic ways and develop meaningful relationships; Maureen, 62, a small-town bar worker who wants to become a stand-up comic; Christine, 45, who wants to slim down and rejoin the dating scene; Lori, 26, a widow who lost her husband five years ago and knows it's time to move on; and Cassie, 20, a party animal who dropped out of college but hopes to reenroll and pursue an archeological career.

Two life coaches, Rhonda Britten (who also has a British show called "Help Me Rhonda") and Rana Walker, lead group and individual counseling sessions with the women, bringing in fitness trainers, financial advisors and image consultants as needed.

Eventually, each cast member who makes major strides toward her goal will move out of the house, to be replaced by another woman hungry for a chance to start over (or at least launch a show-biz career). Women whose progress stalls risk expulsion.

Most of the women in the initial cast are nurturing toward one another, but the producers wisely cranked up the tension by moving Andy into the house last, apparently upsetting the balance just before the cameras started rolling.

The animosity is keenest between Andy, who wants to be the queen bee, and Nyanza, the group's natural leader.

How will this all play out? Will someone get strangled? Will the show spawn a flurry of imitators?

It's juicier than a soap opera, so stay tuned.


'Starting Over'

Where: KNBC-TV Channel 4

When: Weekdays at noon

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