There is nothing wrong conceptually with “The Swan,” so long as viewers embrace the rather disturbing premise that physical beauty is the overriding measure of self-worth. Having opened to predictably buxom ratings with push-up support from “American Idol” in a preview last week, Fox’s makeover twist should give the net’s Monday night tune-in a lift while simultaneously blackening the jaundiced eye of the plastic surgery industry.
Give credit where it’s due to Fox reality guru Mike Darnell, who is becoming sort of like the French archaeologist in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that waited for Indiana Jones to find a bauble and then pilfered it. Of course, Fox has to concoct a “but with” factor, as in “It’s like ‘The Apprentice,’ but with some other rich guy.”
In that vein, “The Swan” goes “Extreme Makeover” one better by turning the weekly nipping and tucking of two women into a contest, with the “winner” advancing to a valedictory beauty pageant. As always, the show is state-of-the-art in terms of the form’s conventions, including body-analysis graphics that evoke “Fox NFL Sunday” and music that varies in urgency and tone from “Mission: Impossible” to “Nadia’s Theme.”
If it’s true that Fox officials were choked up upon seeing the finished product, then clearly, they’re not getting out enough. When Kelly from Maryland says that she “lost her soul” because she isn’t pretty and is “gonna be a new person” thanks to plastic surgery, the prevailing emotion is sadness at her naivete. Despite all those carefully plucked tears of joy, it’s hard to imagine this experience will help her achieve a miraculous turnaround once the cameras stop rolling.
Competing with Kelly in the premiere is Rachel, who even had unattractive cats. Both women underwent a torturous three-month process that included surgery, dental work, psychological therapy (which we’re briefly privy to as well) and a dietary/workout program.
There is also “life coaching” from exec producer-creator-former Telemundo exec Nely Galan, who, if allocated enough screen time, seems destined to become the most hated woman in reality TV. Mixing new age homilies with self-serving hyperbole, Galan accuses one contestant of “whining” after her surgery and lauds the other because “she surrendered to transformation in the most incredible way.”
Actually, it’s not that incredible. Yes, the women are extensively remodeled, but there’s a bit of cheating involved, inasmuch as the “before” pictures show them without makeup and pulled-back hair, while the “astonishing reveal” basically finds them shellacked to look like drag queens. No matter how many times host Amanda Byrum keeps reassuring them in her peculiar Irish accent that they are “bee-yoo-tee-ful,” the results are clearly overstated for dramatic effect.
Emulating most other reality-based makeover shows, “The Swan” bloodlessly zaps through the surgery and recovery in record time — in sharp contrast to “Nip/Tuck,” the brilliant drama on sister cable network FX. By doing so, these programs do their audience a disservice, glorifying this not to be taken lightly solution and, not incidentally, promoting the “Swan team” of makeover mavens.
Fox is doubtless hoping suspense will build toward the two-hour pageant finale in May, introducing a pair of contestants each week until then. The title notwithstanding, however, viewers should have no illusions about their role in the proceedings, since these so-called ugly ducklings are really little more than lambs, there to be prodded and sliced not so much for their benefit as for our amusement.