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Cynical? Who, me?

You would be, too, if you watched this reality TV double feature: the syndicated "life coaching" show that debuts today and Bravo's documentary expose of the genre.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2003

Andy is a tall, beautiful woman who struggles with self-absorption, an urge to control everything in her life and an admitted disdain for other women.

So why did producers of the syndicated reality show Starting Over bring her in last? Walking her into a group of five other women gathered in a Chicago house to change their lives virtually guaranteed she would be an outsider from the start, playing to her worst fears and qualities.

The sad answer may be: because it makes great television.

Producers of the syndicated show, which employs two "life coaches" to help a houseful of women improve their lives, blamed Andy for her problems, which included fights with her housemates over sharing money for groceries and who would drive the group's van to a store.

"We were surprised at how comfortable the women were to be so volatile so quickly," producer Mary-Ellis Bunim, who assembled the show with her Real World/Road Rules producing partner Jon Murray, told the New York Post.

Melding the self-help ethic of daytime TV with the drama of reality TV, the show has been dubbed a "soapra." But viewing three episodes of Starting Over, I had the nagging sense that whenever participants' needs conflicted with the series' needs, producers chose to serve the show.

Indeed, Andy was brought to the show in the worst possible fashion, cluelessly reminding a plain-looking, overweight woman about her diet and informing another participant that she's an "extremely offensive and really bad driver."

It's enough to make you think she's - gulp! - doing it on purpose.

Undoubtedly, my cynicism was fed by viewing Bravo's four-part documentary series The Reality of Reality. Asking "How real is real?", it points out what critics have noted for years: There's not much reality in reality TV.

"What you see is real," said Dick Herlan, the surprisingly frank executive producer of World's Wildest Police Videos. "But the order in which you see it isn't necessarily real, and the drama behind it isn't necessarily real."

Perhaps the best aspect of Bravo's series is how it gathers the scandals and revelations about the reality TV business into one crushing indictment.

Yes, producers of UPN's Manhunt reshot some footage of the game and may have influenced the outcome. Yes, producers of "clip show" series such as Busted on the Job often use video faked by others or themselves.

And yes, producers often ask participants to redo dialogue they didn't catch when it happened, with comments and reactions often pieced together out of context to add impact.

Viewers may think they know the score: the show cites one study in which 57 percent of respondents said reality shows present "a distorted picture of events." But it's hard to imagine fans know how extensive some deceptions can be.

Tonight's installment, How Real is Real, revisits incidents such as Liza Minnelli's aborted VH1 reality show, allegations of producer meddling on CBS's Survivor and Joe Millionaire runnerup Sarah Kozer's objections to editing that implied she had sex with the bachelor (including onscreen subtitles for sound effects such as "gulp!" and "slurp").

The rest of the installments, America's Instant Idols, Behind the Scenes and Everything New is Old, dissect the participants, producers and history of a genre that is transforming television.

All of which explains why I had trouble swallowing some of the action on Starting Over. One "life coach," for instance, tells a woman who hasn't dated in eight years to attend a "speed dating" event where she'll meet 30 men in one night (as a bonus, Andy informs her that all men who attend such events are losers). Later, Andy is encouraged to write her shortcomings on colored blocks she stacks into a wall of shame, which looks impressive onscreen but is awfully humiliating.

"There's nothing pathetic about it," Bunim told a group of TV critics in July. "These are strong women who have stepped up to the challenge . . . (of finding) their own goals."

I had to wonder what kind of "help" producers offered offcamera and whether it will eventually sacrifice the show's participants on the unforgiving altar of television.

AT A GLANCE: Starting Over airs weekdays at 9 a.m. beginning today on WTSP-Ch. 10. The Reality of Reality airs tonight at 9 through Thursday on Bravo.

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