When Oprah Winfrey announced that she was getting into the reality-TV business, it seemed to make as much sense as declaring that her book club would henceforth be devoted to discussing first-person-shooter video games. From her talk show to TV movies like Tuesdays with Morrie, Oprah is the queen of middlebrow televisual uplift. Whereas reality TV is better known for--what's the opposite of uplift? Downpush?
As usual, we should not have doubted her. Oprah's Big Give (the season finale airs April 20) became a decent midseason hit for ABC--decent in both scale and philosophy. The competition, in which contestants race to give away vast sums of money to the needy, combines the adrenaline rush of reality TV with the charitainment of Oprah's talk show. (Lest we forget: "You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!")
Big Give focuses on the effect of charity: not only the material good it does the recipient but also the spiritual good it does the giver. Its contestants seem to have been chosen as much for their backstories and challenges as for their ability to help others: there's a paraplegic out to prove that she has no limits; a woman in a midlife crisis; a man who uses one challenge to seek out the help of his estranged father, who grew apart from him after a divorce. On Big Give, reality TV is not just a vehicle for giving stuff away. It's a form of therapy.
But Oprah does not have the only Oprahesque reality show on TV today; more and more of them are overtly or covertly about mental makeovers. The Biggest Loser coaches weight loss. MTV's Made gives outcast kids self-confidence; the CW's Beauty and the Geek does the same for socially challenged nerds and academically challenged hotties. Supernanny gives tough love to out-of-control kids (and parents); A&E's Intervention, to addicts. On TLC's The Secret Life of a Soccer Mom, women who gave up careers to stay home go back to work for a week, then reconcile themselves with their life choices. Even TV Land has a new feel-good reality show, The Big 4-0, which helps people come to terms with turning 40 (and with the fact that they are now in TV Land's demographic, not MTV's).
It may seem contradictory, but it makes perfect sense. As cutthroat as the reality genre is, it has always had a touchy-feely side, dealing with relationship troubles, self-esteem issues and personal demons, all steeped in the pop-therapy language of personal growth through challenge. From Survivor to American Idol, reality's premise has been that what does not get you eliminated makes you stronger. The Amazing Race (which shares two producers with Big Give) is part contest, part couples' therapy. The pairs of players who race around the world--squabbling marrieds, doubtful fiancés, estranged parents and kids--regularly say they signed up as much to work on their relationships as to win a million bucks.
Now even makeover shows have become about sprucing up your psyche. Carson Kressley (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) makes over women with body-image issues on Lifetime's How to Look Good Naked. To Kressley, the secret is finding not the right bra size but the right frame of mind, shedding not pounds but psychological baggage. Like a Dove commercial writ large, he gets plus-size women to see that they're sexy through such subtle steps as plastering cheesecake pictures of them on billboards and videotaping the hubba-hubba comments of passersby. Likewise, on the Bravo show Tim Gunn's Guide to Style, the Project Runway host transforms from fashion coach into life coach, firmly but sympathetically persuading woman after woman to throw out her old wardrobe--and thereby her old views of herself, her status and her limitations.
But betterment through reality is not only for the little people (or, as on The Biggest Loser, the big people). VH1, home of "celebreality" shows about the almost famous, has produced one of the most fascinating shows so far this year with Celebrity Rehab. Whereas the network's The Surreal Life brought D listers together to drink, flirt and fight under the same roof, Rehab was the corollary cautionary tale in which substance-abusing guests checked into an actual rehab facility under the care of Loveline's Dr. Drew Pinsky. As trashy as its concept was, Rehab's first season was surprisingly earnest, decent and, well, sober, especially as it chronicled the struggle and near breakdowns of former Taxi star Jeff Conaway. Being treated simply as people rather than as stars (or pseudo stars) seemed for some like the first step to sobriety. Celebrity Rehab was as much rehab from celebrity as it was rehab for celebrities.
Even on less uplifting reality shows, the language of therapy is pervasive. Fox's lie-detector show, The Moment of Truth--in which players reveal hurtful secrets for money--is exploitative, garish and excruciating. But it is also essentially Dr. Phil in game-show form. Like a self-help talk show, Truth brings in family members to air dirty laundry, aiming for confrontation and catharsis. For every awful disclosure (a woman admits to having cheated on her husband), there's a sentimental moment (a father offers to become a bigger part of a grown child's life).
Now it's doubtful that The Moment of Truth actually helps anyone (though the payouts could buy a lot of psychotherapy). We don't know if Supernanny improves anyone's long-term parenting, and there are no longitudinal studies to show if The Biggest Loser extends life spans. But like diet books that promise to keep off the fat forever (or until the next diet book, whichever comes first), these shows play off the American ideal of self-reinvention, the confidence that perfection is just one more makeover or 12-step program away.
Thus the common thread on these shows: there are no external circumstances you cannot overcome by improving your internal attitude. On The Biggest Loser, weight loss is about positivity, not genes; on Big Give, your ability to better yourself is limited only by your willingness to help others; on Gunn's and Kressley's shows, your problem is not in your hips but in your head. We want the shows, like the Wizard of Oz, to tell us that we had courage, brains and heart inside us all along.
We might spend our entire lives trying to find those attributes, of course. But that's O.K. Because if we and our fellow humans were really perfectible, what would we ever watch on TV?