Starting Over: They Say Reality TV Has Never Been so Real

One reality TV program tends to stand out, at least among regular watchers of daytime television: “Starting Over”, an hour-long NBC program now in its third season. Its premise is bringing six women from different walks of life together under one roof to try to move to a new, stronger stage.

For some of the women, the issue may be weight loss or dealing with the after effects of gastric bypass surgery, divorce or efforts to leave an unhappy marriage, or to deal with the sadness and despair that has left them using drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. Others come to jumpstart a career – or get out of one in the case of a recent housemate who had been an escort and stripper – or to move past conditions like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or an illness such as cancer.

At first glance, however, every “Starting Over” house since the first season has seemed just a little too glorious and manse-like. While the first season was based in Chicago, the two subsequent ones have been taped in Southern California where the second house sat by itself at the top of a soaring hill.

With these houses come an obligatory swimming pool, incredible landscaping, and lots of outdoor shots of buzzing bees and blooming flowers to remind you how beautiful life is even while you sit through “Starting Over” episodes that may discuss sexual abuse, child beating, and infidelity. In other words, the setting sometimes seems a bit too perfect for the subject matter. You also get the sense that the women are there for a luxury vacation rather than real work, a situation less apparent with the more ordinary first season home.

Each woman, called a housemate or SO sister, gets assigned one of two life coaches while all share the resident psychologist and only male regular in the cast. The life coaches give the women assignments and exercises to perform to help them understand the current difficulties they experience or to gear them toward what they want for the future.

As each new woman arrives – and the cast changes at an irregular schedule as some graduate or fail – her life coach guides her to produce a set of steps she must climb before she can consider herself and her life successfully restarted. But the variety of the steps and the issues these women face can be vast.

One woman from season two, for example, was a chunky, middle-aged materialist who nearly had a nervous breakdown when she was disallowed makeup or the ability to carry her Louis Vuitton handbag everywhere she went. The show seemed to spend more time focusing on her rather poor efforts to become less “me me me” materialistic than it did on another woman from more meager circumstances who lost everything she had in a fire after already losing two of her adult children.

Unlike many of the reality TV offerings like “Survivor” or “American Idol”, there is very little in the nature of voting someone off the island or stage. There is, however, a regular Board of Review where the life coaches call up specific housemates to ask them to account for their performance in the Starting Over house. The grading is tough, too: a C does not lose your TV privileges but usually sends a woman packing in a matter of moments.

The only exception to this rule was seen in season three with a 41-year-old self-described “baby” who still depends on her parents to provide for her every need. After breaking the house and/or life coach rules many times and receiving a D – a grade never before offered – this woman somehow managed to stay longer than other housemates and then disappeared home again. At this writing, we’re told she is supposed to return to graduate, but considering how badly she was doing in a so-called therapeutic setting, one has to wonder.

Regardless of the life coaches – Rhonda Britten and Iyanla VanZant, two recognized big names in such guiding – it is hard to lose sense of the fact that what you watch on “Starting Over” is carefully choreographed TV. There are cameras everywhere and the women are constantly equipped with microphone packs.

Sure, we watch the houseguests doing their hair and makeup, making their beds, and chatting about painful subjects to loved ones and friends via telephone. But as much as we’re told the women “forget” they are being recorded 24/7, you get a strong sense several of them play to the cameras. More than one has admitted she wants to be a star and use her appearance on the show as a launch pad to celebrity.

Yet it’s some of the women who have not voiced their love of being on TV that tend to capture the hearts and compassion of the audience or, conversely, inspire watchers to come together online to post very unflattering assessments of various housemates. In the former case, you see TV watchers seeking out contact with show participants after they leave the Starting Over house to see how these women are now doing.

On the other hand, watchers posting to various online message boards devoted to the show branded one young houseguest a hussy for admitting she had committed adultery with a married man and forced to wear an “A” for the day. Another was roundly criticized after she left the show and was later arrested on a falsified check charge. The materialistic woman from season two with a fondness for too-tight pink-and-black outfits was frequently denounced on message boards for her “greasy” hair and “trailer trash” taste. Fame, as they say, can bite you hard as much as it can uplift.

In fact, one thing you do not often see with Starting Over is how well most of the former houseguests are faring three or six months or a year or two after they leave. While links at the official TV show site at www.startingover.tv give you recaps on some, many other compelling houseguests have no real information attached to them. You can only hope they not only survived the experience but managed to thrive on their own.

Still, one can’t help but get the feeling that watching a show like Starting Over makes you more of a voyeur than an audience member. You listen to people share ugly secrets, be told painful truths, and show occasional glimpses of a rawness of emotion rarely seen on TV. You can’t help but feel for the women who participate, just as you cannot help but wonder why they might be willing to let their lives hang out so broadly across the home screen.

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