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The Pretty Get Prettier

A few days ago, I inadvertently discovered that the local UPN affiliate broadcasts a full hour of Friends. This isn't exactly a heart-warming discovery , since I have avoided the show since the Hype Blizzard of '95. But a kind of misplaced nostalgia made me sit down and watch. The shows in syndication hark back to 1994 and -- because syndication is a demanding mistress -- go all the way up to last season. UPN was running Season One shows from 7 to 7:30, and showing Season Two or later in the next half-hour.

Which is why, at 7:40, I noticed that Matthew Perry's face has changed rather dramatically since Chandler Bing first sauntered onto the screen. He doesn't have the same nose and chin anymore -- there are sharper, firmer versions of both features in place.

Perry isn't the only Friend have acquired a little cosmetic polish between the inaugural season and the subsequent ones: Both Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston have acquired considerably more streamlined physiques. And all of the cast members seem to have acquired some sort of celebrity patina, a grooming standard reached by actors who have enough money to maintain a strict beauty regime, one that includes retaining a personal trainer or three.

The makeover madness isn't restricted to Friends, nor is it restricted to just one network. Look at the actors who star in any of the longer-running top shows, and their appearances have changed perceptively in the years since their Season One debuts. Neve Campbell and Helen Hunt have both morphed into tightly toned versions of their former selves, with the transformation riding on the same upward curve as their movie careers. George Clooney and Anthony Edwards both look as though they're no strangers to self-heating clay masques.

We're not talking haircuts or wardrobe changes, but the gradual change of a formerly-normal-looking actor -- admittedly more attractive than the typical television viewer -- into another aerobicized, exfoliated, lifted and brushed Hollywood clone.

In a way, it's understandable: As a society, we're makeover-mad. E! Online hosts some frightening show wherein an average mall rat is transformed into something approximating a walking Glamour Shot. Magazines like Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle routinely run stories on how to look like some starlet du jour. As a society, tinkering with the way we look is a national pastime that runs second only to ... well, watching television.

So why shouldn't people who make a living on television indulge in high-end beauty maintenance? What if Jennifer Aniston's self-esteem is low and the only thing that can raise it is losing five pounds and acquiring a suspiciously full bustline as she does so? Shouldn't she be allowed to do so without snide TeeVee writers commenting on it?


Television actors are paid to go out there and execute the premise that drives their show, and that execution extends to the aesthetic level. Television is a visual medium, and we initially watch shows not because we think a strange face on the screen has great inner beauty lying beneath it, but because their face fits the overall visual image a show is trying to maintain. Once we buy this visual version of the universe, we're ready to accept the actors and plots.

Think back to Twin Peaks: every actress on that show had the same matte face and smoothed-down hair, and the aesthetic contributed to the show's inimitable feel just as strongly as Angelo Badalamenti's music or David Lynch's dialogue. When you watch any television show, you're watching a carefully constructed visual universe made small. Actors are part of that universe, and their relentless self-enhancement wobbles the foundations of their galaxy.

To be fair, some actor makeovers may actually be executed for the good of the show. Leah Remini's new 'do and makeup, ostensibly done to evoke that Lawn Gisland aesthetic, showcase her no-nonsense acting style and lend some realism to the steadily-improving King of Queens -- a feat the capable actress Remini couldn't perform with her old hair on her old show Fired Up.

But other actor renovations detract from the show visibly and can sap the show's overall strength. For example, ER stood out its first season because it showed actors portraying people who didn't exactly have time to blow-dry and exfoliate between shifts: The actors all had the slightly rumpled, overtired look I've seen on real doctors and nurses during my occasional trips to the ER.

And now, the cast is slightly, yet perceptibly more polished. The shaggy beard Noah Wyle sported for the first half of this season looked completely unbelievable now, whereas it would have been a plausible look back in the series' early days. One of the visual elements that contributed to the show's then-groundbreaking aesthetic first year was the no-glamor believability of the cast's appearance. Now, anyone with working eyes can see a definite aesthetic difference between the characters and themselves. And then -- boom! -- they don't identify with the show anymore, so it's less compelling to watch.

So it may not be a coincidence that a show's numbers start slimming down just as its stars do.

Then again, if having the viewership identify with the show isn't a priority, then follow the Fox lead and turn your characters' ever-changing appearances into yet another dramatic element in the show. Tori Spelling's ever-morphing face and figure provide 90210 viewers with nonstop amusement. Calista Flockhart's increasingly bony physique has introduced the sub-plotline "How long will it be before Ally's forcibly hooked to an IV bag full of Hershey's Syrup?"

It wouldn't be fair to ask actors to enter a time warp for the duration of their shows: as time passes, it only makes sense that they and their characters get new clothes and new haircuts. But it does make sense to treat an actor's appearance as part of the character package, and to set limits on how radically one can overhaul the package before they've erased the character the audience tuned in to see. After all, one of the great myths of makeovers is that you'll emerge from the experience as a whole new person.

Which, ironically, TV disproves every night. After all, the stars who sacrifice believability for better skin can't control one simple fact: we get to watch the old you in reruns every night.


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