While some viewers undoubtedly tune into Extreme Makeover for comic relief, the series is capitalizing on a dangerous trend.
AVERAGE JOE: HAWAII
Regular airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET (NBC)
Cast: Larissa Meek
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Far From Novel
Reality television leans heavily on the belief that beauty and privilege are inextricably linked. Both ABC's Extreme Makeover and NBC's Average Joe subscribe to this notion, and, like Cinderella's fairy godmother, producers of both shows are finding that a little bibbidy-bobbidy-boo goes a long way with viewers and, more importantly, with advertisers.
Extreme Makeover lets ordinary Americans alter their appearance through cosmetic surgery. Each episode follows two patients through the entire process: the first half is dominated by testimonials about their lifelong dissatisfactions with their looks, tearful goodbyes to family and friends, and consultations with experts; the second focuses on surgery, recuperation, and their joyous return to society.
A recent episode featured Pete, a 25-year-old manager of a fast food restaurant (who was once asked by a customer, "How do you go through life looking so ugly?"), and Lori, a 37-year-old mother of three who thought her crooked nose made her look like a witch. Asked to declare their plastic surgery wish lists, Pete wanted extensive dental work to enhance his smile, while Lori was hoping for a nose job and breast implants. Both received all they were looking for and more, as the three weeks of their recovery were spent in the gym and on shopping sprees with fashion consultant Sam Saboura. While not as entertaining as Carson from Queer Eye, Saboura noted every outdated article of clothing Pete and Lori brought with them, as well as suggest a couple of pieces better suited to their "new look."
Extreme Makeover's official website proclaims, "The men and women are given a truly Cinderella-like experience, a real life fairy tale in which their wishes come true, not just to change their looks, but their lives and destinies." As there are no "where are they now?" follow-ups, the audience never does discover if, six months later, Pete is pleased with his enhanced smile or if Lori's new nose has changed her life.
Still, the show implies "happily ever after" for everyone -- surgeons included. It's essentially a 60-minute commercial for surgical enhancement and the medical professionals who can provide it. While product placement in makeover reality programming is not unusual, this show takes it, well, to an extreme. As each new physician is introduced to his patient, the pacing slows considerably and the doctor's name and qualifications flash on the screen. And the show's official ABC website provides updated information on "The Extreme Team," the moniker given to the gaggle of plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentists, hair and make-up artists, and personal trainers enlisted to help whip participants into shape, just in case you wanted to hire them yourself.
For those who can't afford such "extreme" measures, a cursory look at the show's sponsors provides information for weeks of over-the-counter self-improvement. The first commercial break in a recent episode featured no less than four health-and-beauty products: SlimFast, the drug Elidel ("For those living with mild or moderate eczema"), Women's Rogaine, and Rembrandt White (which appeared, appropriately enough, immediately after Pete's consultation with his cosmetic dentist). Even Office Depot got in on the act: under the tagline, "In need of an extreme makeover?" the ad shows a woman purchasing a new computer and PDA.
Similar cross-marketing flourishes online, where a simple Google search for "Extreme Makeover" leads to a website for "ienhance," dedicated to promoting plastic surgery. The page includes a special section on the show, with episodic breakdowns for both the first and second seasons. As you are reminded of the porcelain veneers that David received in the series' first episode, a click on the link delivers a detailed explanation, before and after photos, and doctors in your area.
While some viewers undoubtedly tune into Extreme Makeover for comic relief, the series is capitalizing on a dangerous trend. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, approximately 7.5 million Americans had procedures done in the last year. What was once considered the province of the wealthy is becoming "normal" for a wider population, most using the technology to mold themselves into a hegemonic ideal: youthful, thin, with Caucasian features.
This ideal might seem to get a twist in Average Joe, which sets out to test -- and perhaps disprove -- the theory that looks are more important than "personality." The premise is simple: a young, conventionally beautiful woman is told she's appearing on television to meet attractive men, the goal being to fall in love and get married. The much-publicized catch is that the men are all "average Joes." Each week, following "dates" that, theoretically, allow her to know the men better, she is forced to eliminate some of her suitors. To make her decision particularly difficult, "traditional dating show studs" (in NBC's words) are introduced into the game at judicious intervals. When she's finally asked to pick between her "average Joe" and an Adonis, whom will she choose?
The conclusion of the first season of Average Joe was hardly groundbreaking: the woman dismissed the original contestants in favor of a hunk. The rules governing the second season of the series, called Average Joe: Hawaii, replicate the first. Beautiful Larissa Meek, swimsuit model and former Miss USA contestant, will be courted by 18 "beasts" for several weeks. They don't know that halfway through the season, a group of "hunks" will be imported to the island, effectively blocking (or at least reducing) their chances.
In an effort to avoid the loss of gimmick suffered by, say, The Next Joe Millionaire, producers taped Average Joe: Hawaii before the first season aired. Immediately after Larissa's introduction to the "Joes," she had what could only be described as a panic attack, swearing that she "wouldn't be able to do this" for the next month. The "dates" began after she calmed down and resigned herself to "having some fun." This week's fourth episode features the arrival of the "hunks," and, as the tension has risen with each episode, for the audience knows what's coming, even if Larissa doesn't, so have the ratings.
A similar interest in tension affects nightly ratings for Extreme Makeover, which, according to ABC, increase 50% among adults 18-49 from its first half-hour to its second, meaning that most viewers shun the character introductions that dominate the first 30 minutes, but tune in for the makeovers in the last half. While Average Joe: Hawaii gains viewers as the conflict between looks and character becomes pronounced, those who watch Extreme Makeover prefer to see the transformations (including graphic surgeries), and care less for the stories of people undergoing them.
The worship of physical beauty is ugly, but far from novel. Capitalism, in particular personal spending, is often contingent on a consumer's perceived lack, traditionally promoted by advertising and now, reality shows. Both Extreme Makeover and Average Joe exploit such perceived lack, appearing to make dreams (a new face, romance with a beauty queen) come true for regular folks. Of course, the promise is not absolute. Larissa's final choice is still anyone's guess. Here's hoping one of "the Joes" will pull through.