'Life Has Never Been This Real'


Life has never been this real.

Punchy tagline for a reality TV show, eh?

And yet there's something more to this description of Starting Over than just the catchy combination of words. Comparing Starting Over to the rest of the reality-TV roster, life—or at least this new hybrid version of 'televised life'—really hasn't been this real. In short, Starting Over is the most uplifting, positively-intended, viewer-nurturing reality television program you've (probably) never seen.

It's a novel concept, plopping the familiar 'six strangers living in a house together' trope into daytime TV, among the traditionally female-centered fare of soap operas and talk shows, for one hour a day, five days a week. Starting Over was developed by Bunim/Murray, the producers behind reality pioneer The Real World. But this time around, they gave the houseguests a purpose other than getting drunk, having sex and engaging in conflict: to 'start over' their lives in some major way. Rather than simply offering ordinary people a chance to be on TV and become fifth-rate celebrities, Starting Over actually helps its on-air personalities develop real life-changing skills to support them in growing and changing.

Each woman enters the Starting Over house with a goal—to make peace with the past, to start a new career, to create her own identity, etc.—and her stay centers around accomplishing steps that build toward attainment of her goal and eventual graduation from the house, once she has 'started over'. Along the way, she completes personalized assignments from the two life coaches, Rhonda Britten and Rana Walker, self-help professionals who provide a loving mix of nurturance and disciplinary authority as they talk her through her issues and emotional roadblocks. Her housemates are all also working toward goals; together, the women support each other through friendship, regular group-counseling sessions, and a lot of tears.

I first started watching Starting Over because I was fascinated with the type of super-close narrative detail afforded by a reality-TV show airing five hours a week. (Think about how much narrative fodder is needed to produce that many hours of TV!) But as I got hooked, I was also struck by the magical experience of watching real women transform their lives, day by day, through adversity and achievement.

The close detail provided by five hours a week of footage is a good match for the show's premise, showing how major life change is produced incrementally, through small steps building upon one another toward a larger goal. I've watched Erika separate from her identical twin and develop the strength to make her own decisions. I've watched Andy learn to trust other women and to cultivate the confidence necessary to start her own business. I've watched PJ conquer her fear of food, learn healthy living, recommit to her faith, become honest with her parents, and basically become herself.

What's most notable about the on-air presence of Starting Over, though, is its marked contrast to virtually every other reality-based show currently on television. Obvious comparisons can be made to other 'makeover' shows, where people go through changes in front of the cameras. But makeovers happen on the surface, altering the way people look—but not necessarily who they are. And makeovers work off the common assumption that the subject is flawed in some way and needs to be 'fixed' in order to be acceptable.

Makeover experts dress people in clothes they wouldn't normally be able to afford, send them to salons for expensive hairdos, and maybe even get them a pricey skin treatment or teeth-bleaching. Then, the results are revealed to everyone's amazement, proving once again that we can all be made to conform to traditional standards of attractiveness, given enough money and giving up our control to professional arbiters of taste. Home-makeover shows are also popular, showing how private residences can be remade when personal mementos are discarded and rooms crammed with strategically placed products (free PR!), promoting Americans' favorite pastime of living way beyond their means in generically inoffensive shoeboxes.

As the competition between makeover shows has grown more intense, the makeovers have become more 'extreme'. Now it simply isn't enough to give someone a new outfit and a fresh coat of makeup. Producers recruit eager participants to be hacked apart by plastic surgeons, nipped and tucked and implanted into a whole new person, at least visually.

The worst offender is FOX's new show The Swan, which works from the premise of 'the ugly duckling' magically transformed into a beauty who may or may not end up in a pageant competing with other 'swans', depending on if she ends up pretty enough. This brand of makeover is inherently mean-spirited and competitive in nature, though the results of a woman's makeover—whether or not they are 'good' enough to qualify her for the final pageant—are in no way related to any of her own efforts. In fact, she is not even allowed to look at herself in the mirror during the several weeks of her transformation, while experts poke and prod and literally rip her apart. That the women are blind and without agency in their shallow remaking puts The Swan at the opposite extreme from Starting Over, where the women are responsible for remaking their own lives and are hyperaware of every little emotional bump along the way.

In contrast to the lone example of Starting Over, it's striking to realize how many of the TV shows we watch promote surface appearance over genuine personhood, as if the way we look isn't a reflection of who we are (unless experts have been brought in to alter the reflection). Only by watching the women on Starting Over support each other's difficult transitions can we see how many other reality shows are based on backstabbing competition, sabotage and conflict among the guests.

We have come to be entertained by cheering on real people as they undergo public humiliation, rather than cheering them on for taking positive steps to improve their lives. The main point is not to grow, but to win—a big fat check, a handsome or beautiful mate, a new face or set of breasts. Is it that we're scared to use our TV set as anything other than an escape, maybe as a tool for self-help instead of an instrument for monitoring how we measure up on scales determined by product placements and the celebrity industry?

This week's eclipse provides the perfect backdrop for our own 'starting over' process. But we must remember that, contrary to what we see in magazines and movies and TV programs, change is not a matter of sixty minutes worth of other people doing the work for us, so that the before and after shots are dramatic enough for us to win the ratings race.

The first step is committing to do it. After that, then there are many small steps to follow, building incrementally upon one another, with lots of tears and struggles and confusing detours along the way. Rather than competing, we must draw on the support of others engaged in similarly intense changes. And we shouldn't expect to look dramatically different tomorrow—unless, of course, we take the easy way, going only for surface-level changes but staying virtually the same self inside.