Times are tough. If only all those facing financial woes, foreclosures and stressed relationships could have a few sessions with motivational guru Tony Robbins, who has taken his act to NBC via a weekly program “helping families in crisis transform their lives” — in just 30 days! Reaction to “Breakthrough,” Robbins’ primetime vehicle, will likely depend on one’s tolerance for applying facile self-help aphorisms to serious problems. Still, those buying into the premise ought to consider the host’s stake in the outcomes: What good is he, after all, if he can’t work magic in 43 on-air minutes?
Robbins’ first assignment: Kristen Alioto, a wife relegated to the role of caretaker after her husband, Frank, was rendered a paraplegic in an accident at their wedding reception. The host jets them off to Fiji and arranges for a sky-diving trip, thus fulfilling “Step 4” in his self-help program, which is to “redefine what is possible.”
Based on an initial sampling, Robbins seems to believe most challenges can be overcome by going airborne. The second episode features Ron and Marie Stegner of Bohemia, N.Y., who are grappling with debt and possible foreclosure. As a consequence, their marriage has “gone to pieces,” Marie says, as the two dutifully squabble for the cameras in front of their young kids.
Robbins prods both couples through tasks meant to bring them together, including a trip by the Stegners in a Mig fighter and a stint on Skid Row in Los Angeles. The goal, he says, is to compel them to “start hearing each other,” insisting their problems boil down to communication, not economics.
In theory, Robbins wants to elicit “It’s a Wonderful Life” moments, bringing his charges closer. But he can’t really stop there and have a fully satisfying show, so he sets about helping them repair their lives — a tear-inducing gimmick that only falls apart if you’re prone to quibble about the whole “Teach a man to fish” vs. buying him halibut argument.
These situations are undeniably emotional, and the Stegners’ situation is certainly relatable. Yet that very authenticity is what makes “Breakthrough” aggravating — presenting, as it does, serious hardships before addressing them with the depth of a Hallmark card.
That’s hardly a novelty in the unscripted space, and the show could find a receptive audience — at least by modest summer standards — eager for a little uplift. It’s no accident, after all, that Robbins has made a fortune providing such advice. (Not surprisingly, the architect of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” Tom Forman, is among the exec producers.)
“Everything will be OK,” one participant says reassuringly as an episode draws to a close. Or at least, it will sure feel that way as music swells during the final act — a break for those participating, perhaps, but in TV terms, hardly a breakthrough.