Made (over) in the USA

Self-improvement shows are hot. But do they really help?

Jeff Morton used to have a long ponytail and a leather wardrobe that would make any biker proud. These days, his newly shorn locks are downright preppy as are his pastel oxford shirts.

But more important, and far deeper than the new duds, is his new outlook on life, which he attributes to the life coaches from TV's new "Date Patrol." "All three coaches helped me in different areas of my life," he says, such as body language and communication skills. "You have to take their suggestions to heart, because their intent is to really ... create a change. And they certainly did that with me."

The previously date-challenged pet-shop owner says he's now happily courting.

This fall, Morton's pilgrimage from down-and-out to downright desirable is just one of an avalanche of personal transformations available for home viewing. As evidenced by 20 shows, from ABC's "Extreme Makeover" (which includes plastic surgery) to "Buff Brides" (guess!), self-improvement as spectator sport has become the hottest trend on TV.

FX's controversial new drama "Nip/Tuck" sums up the attitude with a plastic surgeon's opening line to a patient: "Tell me what you don't like about yourself."

This nationwide urge to purge the old personality along with the outdated pillows might lead one to ask: Are Americans truly filled with that much self-loathing, or has TV just discovered the latest, cheapest way to tell a good story? Both, says media watchers, some of whom are concerned that contentment has apparently become downright un-American.

"This is peculiarly American commercial TV," says Amanda Lotz, an assistant communications professor from Denison University. (It's also apparently peculiarly British. The makeover trend is even further along on the other side of the Atlantic - with shows promising to overhaul everything from your dinner-party and housecleaning skills to your personal finances.) "These shows play deeply on the message that underlies our commercial culture that we are not OK, that we have to go get something, whether it's a new house, new body, or relationship to be happy."

At the same time, she adds, it also reflects the realities of the smaller cable TV environment. These shows work best when they tell a compelling, personal story. The smaller cable channels can't afford the million dollar price tag of a scripted network drama. "These shows provide plenty of cheap drama," she says.

And ratings. The newest makeover hit, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," broke ratings records for the Bravo channel. NBC (owner of Bravo) is now airing repeats of the show, in which style mavens tackle a person whose entire life is ripe for what they call "restyling."

This taps into another part of the makeover trend, which is increasingly trying be more than just skin deep. Take "Faking It," which offers people a chance to try out a new career.

Even shows that may seem appearance-oriented say they're more interested in the psyche. "This is not a show about plastic surgery," says "Nip/Tuck" creator Ryan Murphy of his series, which features plenty of graphic depictions nonetheless. "Plastic surgery is the jumping-off point. The show that I want to do is a show about how people transform their lives on every level."

Makeovers have been a staple of fashion magazines and the E! channel for years. But this wave really began three years ago, when the TLC channel unveiled "Trading Spaces."

A knockoff of a British show, "Spaces" immediately hit a chord, with neighbors from coast to coast rushing to redesign the house next door.

The show was good fun but also good timing, says popular culture guru, Michael Stern. "From the perspective of popular culture, this is part of a greater trend of aspects of what used to be limited to the upper classes becoming available to everybody," says the author of the "Encyclopedia of Popular Culture." "What used to be accessible only to people with a lot of wealth and old money, is now accessible to anybody who takes the trouble to want it."

Martha Stewart sealed the trend when she instructed the masses on how to live like the Kennedys - and struck a deal with Kmart to make sure they could afford to do it, he adds.

The unsettled times have also fueled the genre, says Barbara Fisher, executive vice president of Lifetime. "There is a sort of nesting that is going around the country because we've been in such troubled times," she says. "There's a reason there are so many; I certainly feel it. There's nothing more soothing than to work in your garden or to make your home beautiful, because there's lots of things we can't control out there."

There is certainly no shortage of participants eager to be scrutinized and rearranged. TLC's "While You Were Out" receives about 500 applications a day from willing victims.

"The whole experience was honestly pretty trying," says Morna O'Keefe, who was taken to task, as well as the store, on "What Not to Wear." The hosts tossed out her old wardrobe, but gave her $5,000 worth of new clothes that they helped pick out. Midway through the first day, she says, she got into the spirit and was able to look at the show's trademark biting critiques as "tough love."

"I learned a lot," she says.

Not every fashion victim makes it to the checkout line. A contestant from Boston threw up three times, "and someone else just disappeared the next day," says host Wayne Scot Lukas. "She never came back. She was just gone."

But creators of the new show "Mix It Up" say O'Keefe's game attitude is typical. "People come to us because they have a problem," says David Arquette, executive producer of "Mix It Up!" which takes couples and finds ways to combine their separate lives or households into a single (hopefully happy) home. "They have a problem with their home, and they don't feel represented in it," he says. "We try to fix it."

Wife and cocreator Courtney Cox ("Friends") says the show doesn't work unless it deals with the psychological state of the couple.

"A lot of times ... if you're having a problem with design, there is a problem with the relationship. This is actually taking two people's tastes, putting them together, and trying to work out a conflict," she says, adding with a laugh, "we want this show to be 'The Osbournes' meets Martha Stewart meets a little Dr. Phil."

Not surprisingly, the fixes aren't expected to satisfy for long, according to "Outer Spaces" host Susie Coelho. "The trend now with people is redoing your space seasonally or every few months," she says. "Because things are so available and you can get things so inexpensively, the average person will go out and see something they like," and add it to their house. "They go buy a few pillows, a few candles, a few accessories, and they're able to come in and actually redo their living room that evening."

The image of a nation in a perpetual state of renovation concerns some observers. As if it's not bad enough that the shows stoke insecurities, says culture watcher Lotz, consider the sidewalks of a nation full of annual sofa tossers. "We will only be fueling our national problems of wastefulness. This could have serious implications for all of us."

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