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Rebirth in the afternoon

Suffering housemates try to reboot their lives on 'Starting Over' -- day after day after day.

October 02, 2005|Kate Aurthur | Special to The Times

ON a humid summer day in New York City, Rhonda Britten, a life coach on the syndicated daily reality series "Starting Over," was in a boutique in SoHo. A stylishly dressed middle-aged woman approached her and said she was a fan of the show. Somewhat tentatively, she also said, "You've changed so many women's lives." Britten directed her full attention to the stranger. "Has it changed your life?" she asked. The woman paused and then simply answered, "Yes, it has."

Britten is hardly the first celebrity to hear this kind of sentiment from a fan. But metamorphosis is what "Starting Over" -- which won a Daytime Emmy in May -- sets out to do with a kind of intensity TV usually steers clear of. On the show, broadcast weekdays at noon on NBC, six women at a time live together in an L.A. compound, each with the goal of drastic self-improvement. Under the authority of Britten and another life coach, Iyanla Vanzant, as well as Stan J. Katz, a psychologist, the housemates attempt to transform. They reunite with estranged family members, begin new careers and get out of relationship ruts. When one achieves her goal and leaves, another takes her place.

As current billboards for "Dr. Phil" tell us, "Changing lives is hard. Changing channels is easy." Sure, sure -- but while a one-day boot camp with a bossy teletherapist like Dr. Phil McGraw might be fun to watch, it seems unlikely to forever alter anything. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" created the idea of better living through television 20 years ago, and the TV landscape is currently awash in altruistic premises. Yet at bottom, unscripted shows like ABC's hit "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and Christian singer Amy Grant's new NBC series, "Three Wishes," rely on the notion of quick fixes and on dramatic, nearly pornographic, unveilings, while the likes of Dr. Phil assume we'll buy the idea that you can overhaul lives in an hour.

It is "Starting Over's" soap-operatic arcs, which unfold over months, that expose the show's more radical ambitions. The series takes its traditionally soapy fodder -- relationship troubles, difficult personalities, feuds -- and instead of reveling in those problems, as daytime dramas do, "Starting Over" tries to get people to emerge from their wallowing into the bigger, wider world.

So the pleasure of watching the show comes from observing the women's tiny movements in the right direction, as well as, admittedly, witnessing the inevitable setbacks that make "Starting Over" more like its other ancestor, "The Real World." After all, "Starting Over" was created by Mary-Ellis Bunim, who died in January 2004 of breast cancer, and Jonathan Murray, both of whom were behind that pioneering MTV reality series. And if the show's full-on commitment to the painstaking process of change has, inevitably, come along with a certain amount of behind-the-scenes turmoil, their theory about what was lacking in daytime TV has been borne out by the show's year-over-year ratings increases. Last season, in the brutal syndication market, it drew an average of 1.4 million viewers each day, nearly half of them women 18 to 49 -- the most sought-after daytime demographic.

Indeed, while there still might be skeptics, the "Starting Over" franchise seems to know it's onto something and is expanding its reach. On Sept. 19 the show began broadcasting a limited run of episodes focusing on couples getting the "Starting Over" treatment.

Mixing the archetypal with the exotic

THIS Thursday, Season 3 of the original version will begin as the audience meets the six new women moving into the house. Their issues are meant to be archetypal: For example, the show is bringing back a popular breast cancer survivor from the end of last season to continue to tell that story. But a few of the new cast are exotic enough to be attention-grabbers for new viewers sampling the show -- one woman's mother died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, another is a disgraced radio personality.

Over coffee with the other life coaches at a midtown Manhattan hotel in the spring, Vanzant, who is an ornate speaker, talked about the show's upcoming season. Flashy problems, she said, are the same as every other kind. "There are 10 stories in the naked city," she said. "They all stand in that house as a representation of hundreds of thousands of unheard women, unseen women, alone women, who suffer." Months later, at the leafy, sprawling "Starting Over" house in Encino, Vanzant was more specific: "We have cancer, infidelity, unemployment, bankruptcy -- but the experience of your life falling apart doesn't need a name. It's 'My life is falling apart.' "

Britten explained the show's tool-giving approach: "People have said to me, 'I write down everything you and Iyanla say every day. I take the best tip and I practice it every day.' "

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