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TeeVee Awards '04: Worst Show

Extreme makeover shows kind of gross us out. Any time there’s the potential to look at someone on the screen and use the words “swollen,” “seeping” or “livid” to describe them, we’re switching over to the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet. At least there, most of the vertebrates featured on-screen aren’t volunteering for whatever mauling they’re about to receive. That’s inherently more dignified.

So The Swan had that going against it from the first episode. Its second strike was its home network: Fox. This is not the network you turn to when you want a classy aesthetic attached to your reality TV. The show was crippled by its DNA, born of the unholy union between a network that confuses opera-level culture with regional dinner theatre and calls sparkly the new “tasteful” and cosmetic surgeons that call immobile the new “youthful.”

But the show’s third strike was what caused us to revolt en masse and declare it the worst show of the season.

That strike was not the premise itself: we don’t find the idea of a post-op beauty pageant all that offensive, because beauty is already unfairly and inherently competitive. It comes down to good bones, time and money, and none of those are ever distributed equally among the lumpen masses. Rare is the person who doesn’t apply the protestant work ethic to personal appearance, internalizing and paraphrasing cosmetic tycoon Helena Rubenstein’s quote, “There are no ugly [people], only lazy ones,” and passing judgment accordingly. So why would we look down on people who are openly fishing for pulchritudinal intervention instead of stubbornly maintain the ruse of natural good looks? And why would we look down on anyone who’s participating in a publicly-broadcast version of the furtive comparisons we all make?

(Well, we’d do it because we think of nearly everyone on any Fox realty show as a born sucker just asking for our derision. That’s a wholly different principle than the one we’re not objecting to.)

Nor do we object to the idea of pathologically self-loathing women mutilating themselves in a desperate effort to gain self-realization through external approval. Frankly, it doesn’t seem that different from pathologically self-centered attention junkies starving on an island or eating bugs if that’s what it takes to get on television. There is an audience for anything on television, and an executive recognizing this isn’t inherently evil.

We’re not particularly galled by the stripperesque aesthetic Fox thinks is “beauty,” because like we’ve said before, this show’s on a network that couldn’t recognize good taste if it was writhing in its lap wearing twirly pasties and a capped-teeth smile.

Nor do we object to the hilariously hypocritical concession that maybe the self-hating swans didn’t need huge saltwater breasts so much as they needed a firm sense of self-esteem derived from something other than their looks. Each episode’s brazen, brief attempt to pretend anyone cared about the Swan’s mental health was usually delivered via “lifestyle coaching” from a woman who made Jennifer Coolidge’s A Mighty Wind impresario look like a model of clarity and coherence. Nely Galan’s hilariously irrelevant and useless monologues on internal transformation set a comedy benchmark most of the contestants on Last Comic Standing wish they could hit, so we can’t find flaw with any excuse to bring her on for a quick babble.

What really irked us, what really got our goat, was that The Swan completely missed the boat on good television. At this point, makeover reality TV is boring, tired old genre. Transformation is not interesting TV anymore, especially when it’s someone else doing all the transforming of the titular heroine. Half of America’s been accosted by teams of self-styled experts who will clean or redecorate your house, force you to lose weight and exercise, cut your hair, toss your wardrobe, or stage an intervention if some nosy nellie in your life has a problem with you.

If The Swan had wanted to be good, riveting, train-wreck reality TV, what they should have done was shifted the show’s narrative from the operation-and-recovery process — which is boring and played, what with Extreme Makeover and TLC’s A Personal Story plowing that field — to the post-reveal. It’s easy to look like an anesthetized call girl when you’re living in a Fox-sponsored bubble, but the real fun and games probably began once all the Swans went home and tried to maintain the manicures, hair extensions and 1200-calorie-a-day regimens in the conditions that probably contributed to their lumpy, downtrodden, pre-transformation state. Let’s watch the Swans handle husbands who still ignore them — or better, let’s watch the Swans figure out how to handle spouses who suddenly can’t get enough of them. Let’s see how job-hunting goes. Let’s see how long the beauty project lasts in lives that include housework, jobs, parenting and — one hopes — community work, hobbies and socializing with friends. Let’s actually get a show with a narrative structure that lets us see the Swans over several weeks, so we can get to know them and begin rooting for or against them.

Corollary to this: the so-called competition on The Swan really wasn’t. The good competitive reality-TV shows work because they ultimately force the subjects to display a mix of personal traits and strategic thinking, and because there’s actually something at stake. The Swans weren’t called upon to do the former, and the latter was a patent lie: each Swan had already been the beneficiary of several thousand dollars’ worth of surgery and personal training, so they were already winning everything they wanted. The pageant prize was merely icing on the cake. If The Swan producers wanted a decent competition, a beauty pageant wasn’t the way to go — at least, not a pageant immediately after transformation. But try back in six months and see how the Swans held up — there’s a much more interesting pageant, and one that forces the Swans into the conditions that let us separate the real competitors from members of the plumb lucky club.

Instead of putting on an original show, Fox defaulted to a model where the Swans were merely passive pawns in a wholly uncompelling narrative and an artificial competition where the stakes were negligible. Plus all the surgery close-ups were kind of ooky. And for having such splendid potential, then squandering it in a series devoid of narrative tension or any entertainment value whatsoever, they were the worst show on TV.

Additional contributions to this article by: Lisa Schmeiser.


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