self-improvement TV round-up
What Not to Wear (BBC2)
Too Posh to Wash (C4)
You Are What You Eat (C4)
Of the current crop (rash?) of self-improvement shows filling the airwaves, What Not to Wear has taken the most flak. Trinny and Susannah are regularly charged that they have no business a) imposing their tastes on others and b) doing so with such malevolence. The assumption that they maintain the One True Stylistic Path is still exasperating, and they remain dumb to their subjects' feelings (pushing one to tears and stilling regrets with the assertion that 'it came from a good place'). But it's a surprisingly better programme than it was. An hour's running time allows them to deepen their criticism from aesthetics to psychology. Neither are heirs to Freud, but they recognise at least that the dress-sense has origins, that clothes are screens for hiding and projection. Their lack of empathy makes them bad therapists, but their judgements are never less than acute; a life-swapping segment shows them failing to assume the lifestyles of their subjects but framing plenty of pertinent questions and observations nonetheless. The results? Subjective - of course - but they explain themselves well.
Commercially-funded Channel 4 sticks to less contentious principles: cleanliness, on How Clean Is Your House? and its current sequel Too Posh To Wash, and diet, on You Are What You Eat. Too Posh To Wash gives a picture of what C4 thinks How Clean's appeal was, by cropping out what wasn't. Kim and Aggie's mumsy presidency (and its attendant plummy alliterative voiceover and jazzy theme music) is thankfully carried forward. The personal focus persists, but more directly: where before the house was taken as the expression, or condemnation, of its inhabitants, now their bodies themselves are the surface. This might be uncomfortable: there's reason in the subjects' protests that what no-one else sees is no-one else's problem. In practice it's a premise less suited to television: no more than the feet, hands and face can appear, while smells aren't captured on camera. But the cleaning tips are all but gone. On the whole, while we may be ignorant about polishing our banisters, we want and know how to wash ourselves and our clothes. The drastic measures taken on the crustiest items, meanwhile, are of dubious value to us (and, two shows in at the time of writing, are already starting to repeat). The title's premise (easily mistaken at first for a metaphor or an overspill of narrative fruitiness) underlines that inapplicability. We're only dealing with the dirty upper classes. Easy points for inverted snobbery - of course the rich would let themselves go - though there might be a normal snobbery lurking underneath: if dirt's so dreadful in the rich, does that imply it's understandable (i.e. prevalent) in the poor? In either case the makers tread softly, and the individuals shown quickly outgrow their classifications.
But these are the best in the field (straightforwardly didactic programmes like the excellent Body Hits excluded). For the worst, we need to look a few months back. You Are What You Eat suffered disastrous deficiencies. First, the jarring presence of Dr Gillian McKeith. Where Trinny and Susannah jabbed with wit and judgement, and Kim and Aggie were as concerned with their sinners as they were disgusted with their hygenic sins, McKeith's manner had all the fun of the warning on a pack of cigarettes. From the first step into her victim's home, she assumed a jump-when-I-say authority; her on-screen presence was defined by dire warnings on 'change or die' lines. The jaunty voiceover and backing music felt severely out of place. This (we daren't disagree) was too serious a business to make jokes, or smile, or indeed betray any sign of humanity. What were we to get from this? Not any dietary advice: instead we got pictures of people struggling with and rejecting (wilfulness!) her dietary advice. Scrolls of the new regimens' ingredients gave a sense of impressive difficulty rather than information. Nor was it entertaining to watch people being threatened with their own shortcomings, much less in the same way for eight weeks. If McKeith released any emotional responses in us, they were ugly ones: our disgust and intolerance towards the overweight. Because the overweight were the only subjects of the programme. It was as if no other eating disorders existed: anaemia, anorexia, bulimia, all equally deserving of treatment, and all equally excluded. But then, if they were included, McKeith's insensitivity, the programme's resultant complexion, couldn't pass. You are what you eat, it says, and you're eating crap: put two and two together.
Except, crucially, it's rarely you. All these programmes pick out the worst offenders in their fields: if you'll even watch a programme called 'How Clean Is Your House?' you're immediately likely to be 'better' than them. And, while you might expect to identify with the subjects to be improved as far as we want instruction on our own problems, their focus suggests otherwise. Hints that we have room for improvement ourselves are outweighed by assurances that the room between us and these dreadful people is far greater. We see less of what's generally instructive than of what's individually interesting, the personalities of the fixer and the fixee. And of the two, it's the latter's outrages which are rectified, not the former's. The subjects learn dress-sense, but Trinny and Susannah don't learn manners. If we're to identify with anyone, it's with the authorities, whose rules the programmes represent, and whose happy endings come from their pursuit. A consensus of right conduct lies behind each, and they assume (with the silent pressure of approval) that we already are, or strive to be, part of it.