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Television review: 'Plain Jane'

The CW makeover show rises a cut above many in the genre thanks to a savvy selection process for the female subjects and the deft hand of charming British stylist Louise Roe.

July 28, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

The new CW makeover show "Plain Jane" promises more than it could possibly deliver: Before our very eyes, a socially inept and fashion-challenged young woman will be transformed into an intoxicating vision of loveliness with enough life-changing confidence to declare herself to her unsuspecting secret crush.

It took Professor Henry Higgins many months, the financial backing of Colonel Pickering and a full orchestra to pull a similar rabbit out of "My Fair Lady's" hat. But armed with a can-do attitude, a cat-walk gait and, in the first episode anyway, a Bloomingdale's gift card, British stylist and fashion writer Louise Roe is convinced she can do it in a few days. It's an abbreviated version of "life-changing," but it may be enough to sustain a half-hour reality series. Of course, she does have a few things Higgins did not, like a camera crew, a bunch of professional stylists and, oh, yeah, electroshock therapy.

I'm sure that, had the technology been available, Higgins would have used a jolt-administering dog-training device in his flower-girl-to-real-lady experiment. He was not a fan of personal sloth, and neither is Roe. Still, it's not surprising that much of the early, um, buzz about "Plain Jane" has expressed delighted, um, shock at Roe's decision to send her first victim through a dog-park lesson in flirting wired not only for sound but behavior modification. Cristen wears an armband through which Roe can send pings of electricity whenever the poor girl slouches or confuses sarcasm for sweet-talk.

It doesn't seem to work, by the way — poor Cristen jumps in a way that would be played for huge laughs in any decent Sandra Bullock comedy, though the dog-park scene is painfully hilarious to watch mainly because the ratio of gay men to straight men at your typical L.A. area dog park is about 7 to 1. As Cristen discovers.

Likewise, there is a "Fear Factor-ish" scene involving a vase full of snails, which Roe uses to convince Cristen that if she can face snails, she can do anything.

Both bits are clever enough and, more importantly, break up the tedium of what is actually going to happen here — Cristen is going to be plucked, waxed, colored and clipped to within an inch of her life, thrust into a form-fitting, thigh-high dress and stacked heels and sent teetering down a staircase to tell her longtime pal that she wants to be more than friends. A feat she must pull off not necessarily because she is so suddenly filled with self-confidence but because the cameras, babe, they are a-rollin.'

Fortunately, and that word is dragged from my fingers as if over shards of glass because I think make-over shows are a sure sign that the Seventh Seal is hanging together by a mere thread, Roe is as charming a fairy godmother as you're going to find, and if Cristen is any indication, the casting department has chosen its participants well. That she is, even under the messy hair, very attractive and, more important, runway thin, is to be expected, at least from the pilot. That no cosmetic surgery is involved or even suggested is a blessing. As is that Roe points out that if Kristen is going to dress, act and decorate like she is 10years old, then she can't expect a grown-up man to express interest. Because that would be, you know, creepy.

What "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" did for milk-crate hoarding, futon-loving men, "Plain Jane" attempts to do for light-under-a-bushel women. And although generating the sort of minor social revolution that the five hosts of "Queer Eye" accomplished is too tall an order for even a long and lovely British gal, Roe does manage to quickly become the stylish older sister you wish you had.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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