Watch self-actualization on NBC's Starting Over.

Watch self-actualization on NBC's Starting Over.

Watch self-actualization on NBC's Starting Over.

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April 9 2004 6:30 PM

Pretty on the Inside

NBC's Starting Over takes the pain out of self-actualization.

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Starting Over: mesmerizing with kindness

Starting Over, a daytime reality show-cum-soap-opera well into its second successful season on NBC, is an hourlong group-therapy session that airs every weekday at 11 a.m.—prime time for the stay-at-home mom. Its premise—six ordinary women living together in a Chicago-area house, helping each other to achieve their personal goals—sounds like The Real World meets Oprah. But Starting Over lacks both the back-stabbing tension of the MTV hothouse melodrama and the no-nonsense ferocity of Oprah's Dr. Phil. Rather, it posits a conflict-free world in which personal growth, that winning lottery ticket in the therapy sweepstakes, is an inevitable result of sitting around being really nice to each other.

Rana and Rhonda, the two "life coaches" who drop in regularly on our six heroines, are like foxy, chummy sorority sisters. They want to take you salsa dancing, buy you a smoothie, and help you shop for underwear. They encourage you to cry it out, to make a list of your best qualities, and they're sure you'll realize all your dreams one day because dammit, you deserve to. (Not until you're ready, of course.) When a Starting Over contestant is deemed sufficiently self-actualized by her counselors and fellow housemates, she "graduates" in a ritual involving pink streamers, group squealing, and the copious squirting of Silly String. In the next installment, the departing graduate is replaced by a new participant.

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Starting Over's current roster includes Amy, 27, the pink-haired wife of a professional basketball player who wants to start a career of her own; Rain, 29, a welfare mother of two who's determined to find an affordable apartment and the means to support her family; Erika, 23, a recent college grad who hopes for greater autonomy after a life in the shadow of her identical twin sister (not on the show); and the charmingly self-deprecating Susan, 35, who's beginning to search for her biological father after a lifetime of wondering. Two new contestants are Lynnell, 47, and Hailey, 20, a mother-daughter pair riven by such issues as Hailey's undisciplined partying and her mother's propensity for riding a Harley and marrying "losers."

There are tearful in-house discussions of these interpersonal struggles, during which the women sit on the couch, snuggling under fuzzy pink blankets—an apt symbol for Starting Over's cozy, non-confrontational agenda. Meals are cooked and eaten, outfits modeled and approved. Occasionally, the life coaches come up with projects for the girls to engage in outside the house; these often involve the overcoming of some perceived obstacle to self-esteem. In one of the more disturbing segments, the shy and self-conscious Erika is encouraged to shop for a cheerleading outfit in a vintage store, stand on a busy Chicago street corner with pompoms in hand, and make up a cheer for herself. Erika's stubborn resistance at every step of this endeavor seemed utterly logical to me, and I was sure that the coaches must have been secretly planning a reverse-psychology experiment, in which Erika's final refusal to take part in this hideous charade would prove how far she had come on the path to self-assertion. But no—the show is so thoroughly invested in its doctrine of positive thinking that Erika is not only made to go through with the public cheer, she is forced to submit to the critique of a random passerby. ("You don't seem like you really mean it.") I would have given him a pompom right in the kisser.

Despite Starting Over's often discomfiting adherence to the touchy-feely tenets of self-help culture, it's easy to understand how the show might become a homemaker's guilty pleasure: There's something pleasantly addictive about its placid refusal to be mean. Most notably, for a show that makes over its participants, Starting Over pays blessedly little attention to the women's physical appearance. Most of them leave the house looking about the same as they went in, give or take a few pounds and a snazzy outfit. Sure, I cringed when last week's graduate, P.J., was encouraged to repeat into a hand mirror, "I'm willing to see my beauty inside and out." But as easy as it is to laugh at the corny self-help concept of letting yourself be "who you really are," I'd take that cliché any day over sadistic dictum (implicit in such shows as The Swan and Extreme Makeover) that you should go under the knife to become someone else.