Tony Robbins, the multimillionaire "Father of the Coaching Industry," to use his own phrase, has a reality show, "Breakthrough With Tony Robbins," premiering Tuesday on NBC. (The network describes the series as "six one-hour specials.") It is not, except incidentally, an infomercial, Robbins' customary form of televisual expression, but rather a stunt-filled life-makeover show in which Tony — you don't mind if I call him Tony? — helps "families in crisis" work through their problems in colorful ways that look good on TV. And in only 30 days. (It's not reality TV without a deadline, but it is also Tony's usual promise to deliver results fast.)
In the first episode we meet Frank and Kristen. Two years ago, Frank jumped into a pool during their wedding reception and broke his neck; he's a quadriplegic with some use of his arms, though not much of his hands. Kristen feels more like a caretaker than a wife, and Frank feels guilty and depressed. Tony, who considers this "an incredible love story and an extraordinary tragedy all rolled into one," invites them to visit him in Fiji.
He will have them Rewrite Their Story, Confront Their Real Issues, Discover Their Inner Strength and Own Their Breakthrough, which in practical terms they do by opening up to Tony, sky diving, going to a spa (Kristen), playing wheelchair rugby (Frank), rebuilding a truck and driving it fast in the desert (Frank) and getting married again, live onstage at West L.A.'s Wadsworth Theater, surrounded by friends and in front of a roomful of applauding strangers. Naturally, this makes them feel pretty good.
"I know Tony has met with world leaders," says Frank as he arrives in Fiji. "He has met with important people. And now he's taking time to talk to me." On a television show in which he stars and that bears his name, a critic might add, though Frank does not.
Still, though my tolerance for tear jerking in-your-face, feel-good makeover shows is comparatively limited, I don't want to come down too hard on "Breakthrough," however much it commodifies misfortune or stage-manages reality. Frank and Kristen are very sweet, their challenges obviously authentic. If they are somewhat low-key by the standards of these things, their mentor more than makes up for it: Indeed, Tony dominates the episode, sometimes to the point that his clients seem like witnesses to his journey, the journey of Tony fixing Frank and Kristen. They fix themselves, he'd probably say, but he is there, nevertheless, exhorting, commentating — heaven forbid you should be left to work out for yourself what these people might be feeling — and creating his patented therapeutic reality.
And even if what Robbins has to offer are at bottom codified, chrome-plated variations and elaborations on old saws such as "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade" and "You can't win if you don't play," the pain he addresses is real enough — and so, for this lucky unlucky couple at least, is the relief.