So jampacked with overwrought sentiments that it must air five days a week, Starting Over is a daytime reality soap opera with a revolving cast of fucked-up women (not failed actors, unlike many reality shows) from varied, fucked-up socioeconomic backgrounds who, with the help of a life coach, try fixing or wallowing in -- depending on your perspective -- their problems. Their issues? Any number of tribulations, from coping with the loss of a spouse to trying to reconnect with a child given up for adoption to "developing emotional honesty in order to live life to the fullest." (We don't know what the last one means either, but its vaguely abstract diagnosis borders on brilliance.) The best part, though, is that these women live together in a house perched high in the Hollywood Hills. This leads to tears, hugs, and savory quarreling among them. And not since Cops graced Dog Bites' TV by offering a weeklong "Bad Girls" special have we been this captivated by women, let alone their balancing act on the edges of insanity.
The ringmaster behind this is Starting Over's head life coach, the astute Rhonda Britten. In addition to penning a number of self-help books on "mastering emotional fears" and founding the awesomely named Fearless Living Institute (FLI), Britten won't take any flimflam from you and insists on others being real. So, when we heard from our close friend Alissa Mach that the life coaches of Starting Over would embark on a Britney Spears-style mall tour of America, we nearly wet ourselves with glee. When the tour stopped in Silicon Valley, Alissa and Dog Bites woke up at the unorthodox hour of 9 a.m., threw on some oversized sunglasses, grabbed a couple of venti lattes, and headed down the 280 south to San Jose, the Orange County for ugly people.
When we arrive in San Jose, we stop at the posh Hotel Valencia in Santana Row to meet Britten, and when we do, we find it difficult not to gush. She's chock-full of sass, a newly minted lifestyle icon on her way to Oprah Winfrey's self-help-guru stratosphere. She sports a purple jacket over a forest green shirt, tight jeans with flesh-colored heels, and a smart, sharp blond haircut with wisps curling out. When we sit down to chat about the show, she bluntly cuts the conversation short to ask if anyone is "wearing any type of cologne or perfume," because she's allergic to fragrance. We don't admit to the minute amount of Yves Saint Laurent M7 sprayed on our clavicle, for fear she might banish us from Santana Row.
When she speaks to us, her eyes won't abandon our gaze, which takes us aback; no-nonsense sincerity (real or otherwise) confuses us. When asked what brought her into life coaching and mental health, she calmly and succinctly tells us that as a 14-year-old, she witnessed her father murder her mother with a shotgun, then turn the gun on himself, all while looking teenage Rhonda in the eye. (It's just then that we come to a decision not to whine to her about our inability to balance our checking account.) As an adult, she says, after three failed suicide attempts, a bout with chemical dependency, and a bit part on the terrible '80s sitcom Perfect Strangers, she chose to go into therapy. While in treatment, she came up with exercises and goals that helped her make a new and successful life for herself. Now, she uses these self-made techniques on Starting Over, during which candidates complete certain tasks in hopes of achieving their goals and graduating from the household.
When asked if either she or the producers (Jonathan Murray and the late Mary-Ellis Bunim, who together created the groundbreaking Real World series) have considered making a Starting Over for men, Britten responds with a chipper, "Oh, I'd love to!" But we doubt it would be nearly as successful. Not that men aren't just as screwy and in need of some flowery, psychology-lite life management as women, but, like the WNBA, Starting Over is suited better to one gender than the other, entertainmentwise.
When the interview ends, we move to shake Britten's hand. Instead, she surprises us by giving us a hug that lasts for almost a full minute. We swoon. Her publicist mentions that we have reserved VIP seating for the big show at Westfield Oakridge Mall. We and Alissa contain our excitement until we're in the elevator.
On our way to the mall, we get lost at the wrong mall. Finally arriving at the large and tacky Westfield Oakridge Mall, we run to the front of the Sears store where the show is being shot. We are astounded by a huge crowd of women. The front row has three ladies with crutches, making the whole thing seem like an evangelical healing, which in some ways we guess it is. We're late; they're ready to go. As we stroll to our front-row seats marked off with sky blue streamers to signify VIP, we feel the group of women behind us collectively vibing us to fuck off.
The set is decorated as a mini talk show studio, complete with white vases holding white roses on top of a coffee table and a bookcase holding books in the background; pastel colors are everywhere. When Britten is finally unveiled to her fans, they go, for lack of a better word, apeshit. Looking over our shoulder, we see the crowd has jumped to its collective feet, and several audience members smear tears across their cheeks. Britten wows her crowd with inspirational and benign phrases: asking if the women are "willing to invest and grow every step of the way" with a five-step "principles for changing your life" plan. The word "gratitude" keeps getting used. Britten breaks the fourth wall, coming offstage, running around the audience, sending fans/followers into a frenzy. She's an evangelist in designer duds.
Her concept of taking only five minutes a day to change one area of your life sounds perfect for TV fans. When she gives away a "Fearless Living" bracelet to a lucky lady in the second row, the audience lets out a communal "Oh!" of excitement tinged with jealousy. Caught up in the rapture of the mostly female crowd, we also "Oh!"
After ending the show with untamed applause, Britten's minions wait in line in hopes of getting a coveted autograph from the star. We notice that many of them are clutching Starting Over notebooks, in which they've been furiously scribbling notes. When we ask one audience member where she got hers, she snaps, "They're for us. Those of us who had to wait in line!" and turns away. Shocked by the tiny confrontation, we gently take Alissa's arm and head to that vile Cheesecake Factory that every mall seems to house.
It's all too easy to make fun of Britten, her kooky followers, her show's self-help premise. But the program deserves your support, because of its decency -- it demands that participants take responsibility for their actions -- and because it's addictive TV that only the most obnoxiously well-adjusted and centered person couldn't love. (Brock Keeling)