Sorry, Tony Robbins. Your 'Breakthrough' has a much bigger problem to fix.

SHATTERED DREAMS: Tony Robbins helps people on his show pick up the pieces of their lives.
SHATTERED DREAMS: Tony Robbins helps people on his show pick up the pieces of their lives. (Dave Bjerke/nbc)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Tom Shales
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Maybe the recession has trashed your dreams. Maybe your marriage or other relationship is suffering from the aftershocks. Maybe you feel that everything but the roof is falling in on your head, and that it's only a matter of time before you have shingles on your scalp.

Perhaps what you need is a remedy cooked up by filthy-rich self-helper Tony Robbins. How about, say, a week spent living among homeless people in downtown Los Angeles? Or, even better, the chance to do a "barrel roll" in a Russian MiG fighter plane and possibly vomit?

Time may march on, but reality shows just keep rolling off the back of the truck, landing on America's much-abused television screens. Among the many irritating things about today's Exhibit A -- "Breakthrough With Tony Robbins," yet more trash television from NBC -- is that it's another daytime-caliber show that somehow crashed the prime-time schedule, one more sign of age-old barriers and dividing lines crumbling in the cable age.

On each weekly edition of this latest ersatz "reality" hour, the gigantic Robbins -- who's sold, you know, a jillion books and already devoured hundreds of hours of TV time -- tries to extend his domain further by playing pop shrink to sundry souls in distress. Ron and Marie Stegner, the subjects of one episode, found out what happens "when the American Dream falls apart," as Robbins says in narration: Ron lost his job and invested their savings in a business venture that failed, and now they spend much of their time arguing about how to put it back together.

But here comes Tony with his satchel full of remedies, along with advice as sophisticated as -- stand by for an epiphany -- "Ya gotta shut up and listen." Oh, ya do?

That's only the beginning. You also gotta get into the co-pilot's seat on a MiG fighter and zoom around the skies over Southern California because, after being scared crazy by that, all other frights will seem less potent. Now wait a minute -- what about those of us who don't have Russian jets parked in the back yard? (And hey, why a Russian plane, anyway?) Also: What gives with all the Red Bull logos on everybody's overalls? And why does hubby happen to say of wifey, after she braves the ride, "She took the bull by the horns"?

Talk about your sneaky plugs and product placements.

Robbins suggests at one or two points that he's uniquely qualified to peddle advice on personal crisis management because he's been through nightmarish ordeals himself and fought his way out of them. The case of the collapsing couple is presented like an illustrated lecture from Dr. Buttinski divided into step-by-step plateaus: "Step 1, Change Your Environment" (to a cockpit?); "Step 2, Confront Your Real Issues"; "Step 3, Expand Your Limits"; and up through "Step 7, Own Your Breakthrough."

The couple's second trial by fire, as devised by Robbins and company, requires them to spend a week, including sleepovers, among homeless people in L.A.'s "Skid Row" section. Having a pair of suburban Caucasians supposedly prove their mettle by living and snoozing amongst the poor is a concept fraught with unfortunate racial, social and cultural overtones. At one point, Marie freaks out: "I've had it. I can't take another day of it." It's this show's idea of a cliffhanger.

Do Marie and Ron dutifully learn their lesson and properly humiliate themselves in front of Robbins -- and a theater full of the faithful in Los Angeles? If we told you, you wouldn't be at all surprised by the outcome. You might forget about it by the time the show airs anyway -- because apparently, at the last minute, the Stegners were yanked from their primo position as the series premiere (airing Tuesday) and replaced by an episode about a man who breaks his neck on his honeymoon and what a downer that turns out to be.

It hardly seems unfair to speculate that if you've seen the first show, you've seen the second, and vice versa. And here's a little story that even Robbins doesn't know: Our DVD preview copy of the Stegner episode apparently fell off a delivery truck while en route to my (I mean, the bank's) house -- and a very kind neighbor who found it dropped it off in time for our deadline. There's a wacky little irony in there someplace.

One striking detail about the Stegner show is that at no point does Robbins suggest that it just might possibly be society that has failed. Though Robbins acknowledges that millions of people may be in straits similar to Ron and Marie's, he never wonders if the system itself might need repair. All the bankruptcies, foreclosures, ruthless credit-card companies and crooked captains of commerce -- they must just be coincidences.

Robbins, in fact, all but scolds the Stegners for what happened to them. And why shouldn't he? After all, Tony Robbins is doing all right! He's loaded with dough; he even seems to be swelling with wealth, from the head down. He steers Ron, who lost at least a hundred grand in the failed business venture, into the restaurant racket; Robbins has two friends in that biz who both happen to come across like characters from "The Sopranos."

Mightn't it have been more instructive (and for Ron, more potentially profitable) to educate the poor guy on the art of self-help scammery? And self-help spammery, too, of course -- since the Internet provides such a convenient avenue into the American home and such an efficient device for the breaking of the American heart.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company