By Emily Yahr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010; E03
With an endless list of subjects that can be improved via reality show -- cars, houses, pets, restaurants, parents, significant others, etc. -- CW goes old-school this week with "Plain Jane," a six-episode series about the most classic makeover subject out there: ourselves.
Turns out, there may be a reason that self-improvement shows like "Extreme Makover" and "The Swan" flamed out so quickly back in the day. While it could be captivating to watch an everyday person change everything about themselves to gain confidence (Hollywood-speak for "become hotter"), it's simply unsatisfying when the magical transformation takes place thanks to a highly trained team of stylists, a personal life coach and pricey electronic equipment. Sorry, folks, we live in a "Biggest Loser" world now -- that's not going to cut it. If someone is going to get the chance to look amazing (for free!) on national TV, they better suffer for the prize.
"Plain Jane," premiering Wednesday night, is also hindered by this silly issue: The protagonists, one "ugly duckling" a night, aren't ugly at all. As if to drive home this point, the show's opening scenes include shots of Drew Barrymore in "Never Been Kissed," Molly Ringwald in "Sixteen Candles" and Taylor Swift in her "You Belong With Me" music video, examples of how throwing a hideous pair of glasses on a beautiful person is supposed to make us forget they're beautiful.
In the first episode, Cristen, a music business assistant from Los Angeles, appears in a video, begging to be chosen for a life makeover. Hear her pain:
"My wardrobe is a disaster, I'm really bad at hair and makeup. Please . . . help," pleads Cristen -- a fresh-faced 24-year-old with a big smile who shows no signs of being anything except utterly charming.
Host Louise Roe -- a leggy, brunet, self-proclaimed fashion expert with a fabulous British accent -- is simply horrified by the spectacle. "She's . . . sweet," Roe says lightly, though her eyes widen when Cristen confesses that on occasion, she has been known to wear pajamas out of the house.
Cristen's family also weighs in on her sad status. "Cristen's real quiet and shy. . . . It doesn't surprise me that she's single," says Aunt Heather, who probably should not expect anything exceptionally nice this Christmas.
Thus begins the adventure. As a frizzy-ponytailed Cristen, dressed in jeans and a gray T-shirt with a baggy plaid shirt thrown on, meets with Roe to confess that even though she's been surrounded by almost exclusively male friends her whole life, she has been on only one real date -- plus, she harbors a hard-core crush on her buddy Ty, who has categorized her in "the friend zone" since college. Ty, a musician with an "unusual but cute" face, isn't going to stay single for long, so it's time to get to work.
"I'm going to make you over top to bottom, inside and out," Roe says. "Ty is going to be drooling."
After some quick Ty-stalking so Roe can see if the object of affection is cute enough to be worth the trouble (he is), the women set off for a blow-out at a hair salon and requisite wardrobe upgrade, where, lo and behold, Cristen actually has potential. "How skinny are you?" Roe shrieks when her project emerges in a form-fitting outfit. "Why are you hiding this bod?"
And during a bedroom decor critique, Roe proves she can throw out quality one-liners: "Did some sort of 'Sesame Street' muppet die on your bed?" she inquires, examining a tattered pink blanket.
The series -- perhaps a result of being co-executive-produced by the same people who run CBS's wacky reality show "Big Brother" -- does get points for a few off-the-rails stunts, such as having Cristen overcome her bizarre, extreme fear of snails by hiding a $1,000 Bloomingdales gift card in a jar full of the slimy critters. Later, Roe arms Cristen with an electronic shock collar of sorts during an entertaining montage of "flirting lessons," and sends her off to pick up guys at a dog park, where she'll feel a volt of electricity if she doesn't get at least one man's phone number, or uses boring pickup lines. ("Do you come here a lot?" Zap!)
No spoilers here, but fear not -- there's only one type of ending for this manufactured fairy tale. After a day of reaping the benefits of Roe and her experts, who arrange for Ty to show up on a date to meet his improved "friend zone" gal, Cristen gushes: "I feel like I'm in a movie."
But sadly, she's just in a reality show, one that makes the stakes so low and so simple, it's difficult to care about the outcome.
(one hour) debuts Wednesday at 9 p.m. on the CW.