The last ten years or so have been tough and scary times for Americans. Increasingly, we're less certain of the things we always thought we knew, and the more we think about the fact that our status as the unquestionable leader of the world may slip as soon as a decade from now, the more we want to huddle up with fantasies. We've spent the last ten years besieged by terrorism, war, natural disasters, manmade disasters, a crumbling ecosystem, economic collapse, and an increasing sense that there's not a damn thing anyone can do to fix any of these problems. Is it any wonder that the reality TV sub-genre of "An expert comes into troubled people's lives and fixes all of their problems via entirely superficial means" has become so popular in the last ten years? We crave easy, superficial solutions. We want to think that if we had a new house or a new waistline or a new life coach, it would all be OK. But it wouldn't all be OK, and that's what makes these shows, the more they pop up, feel increasingly hollow.

Obviously, self-help TV has been around from the very start of the medium. Queen for a Day had strong elements of these kinds of shows, and there have been numerous other shows that brought troubled people up in front of a national audience and asked them to, more or less, hug it out. The daytime talk show genre, after all, is built on this sort of thing, stretching all the way back to Donahue, perfected by Oprah, and turned into weird circus sideshow by Maury Povich. But the modern version of this kind of show probably has its roots in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, a surprisingly big hit by cable standards, and a show that took a breezy topic - turning schlubby straight guys into debonair men about town with the help of the gay equivalent of the Keebler elves - and treated it appropriately breezily.

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The big shift came when ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition started regularly cracking the top twenty rated shows on television in 2004 and 2005 (boosted, it must be said, by being on before Desperate Housewives). The show took an absolutely abhorrent series - where people were made all better via plastic surgery - and got around the loathsome aspects of the premise by making people all better by fixing their messed up houses. There was a weekly sob story about how the house of two people who had six kids of their own and a rotating band of feisty ragtag orphans was destroyed by a volcano and they were all forced to live in a tractor-trailer, and then there was the thrill of seeing Ty Pennington and his team of carpenters make it all better by pounding a few nails over the course of a few days. At the end, buses were moved, tears were shed, and all was well. A life really could be fixed just by building a new house.

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition wasn't very good, but it was incredibly, incredibly visceral. It's the kind of TV show that grabs you right in your gut and doesn't let go until you've wept or groaned or had some kind of reaction to what it's doing. Plus, for a show that built a whole HOUSE in every episode, it was remarkably cheap, the kind of thing that could be redone on a smaller scale by just about every network out there. Soon, copycats along every line of thought cluttered the landscape, and though few of them were as successful as Home Edition, they were all cheap enough that they could be trotted out to fill struggling timeslots easily enough. Supernanny, Wife Swap, Dr. Phil, and The Biggest Loser (which was smart enough to wed this idea to a competition format and has since become one of the biggest reality hits on TV and the only thing keeping NBC alive) all borrowed this format to one degree or another, and all to varying degrees of success.

If you've noticed that I've mostly been writing around the genuinely terrible Breakthrough with Tony Robbins, it's because I want to point to Claire Zulkey's review of Losing It with Jillian (which similarly deconstructs this genre of TV) and say, "Co-sign." Breakthrough with Tony Robbins is the SAME SHOW, only it treats fixing crippling mental illnesses like weight loss. The premiere is about a couple whose marriage has been strained by the fact that the husband became a quadriplegic at their wedding reception. Now, the wife is uncertain of just how much she has to treat her husband with kid gloves, and the strain this has placed on the relationship is remarkable. Husband wants to let his wife know it's OK to not constantly be caring for him. Wife's anger at him for everything that's happened slowly calcifies. This is, basically, the stuff of several lengthy, hopefully emotionally fulfilling, marriage counseling sessions.

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Or it could be the stuff of sitting around a big table with Tony Robbins (who looks more and more like Thing from the Fantastic Four) in Fiji and talking about your feelings, then sky diving, then going on separate vacations, then rebuilding a race car, then renewing your marriage vows in front of family and friends. Breakthrough with Tony Robbins wants you to believe that the only thing standing between you and being rid of those mental issues that have been holding you back is adopting a more positive attitude and finding some physical activities to do that will kick you in the ass. The thing is, there's truth to some of this. Pretending to be happy will make you feel actually happy for a short time, and physical activity is a mood-brightener as well. But lasting solutions usually involve some form of intensive therapy or figuring out a safe environment to talk about your feelings. Breakthrough with Tony Robbins is only about the easy solutions. Most reality TV is.

Furthermore, the show isn't even all that attractively filmed. You'd think that when you have Fiji and Oceanside, Calif., as major locations, you'd figure out a way to make them look beautiful, but the whole thing just looks cheap and shoddy, as though NBC filmed it with a bunch of mid-90s camcorders it found on sale at the Goodwill. The show is one easy answer after another, interspersed with some talking head interviews with both halves of the central couple and Robbins. After a while, the whole thing just sort of wanders by at a snail's pace, and the whole thing feels indistinguishable from anything else. Robbins' central rules of changing your life flash on screen every so often, but they're so very, very generic that they don't strike me as terribly helpful unless you're already so desperate for a lifeline that you're willing to grasp at whatever happens to come by. Breakthrough with Tony Robbins is yet another show made for a nation looking for an easy balm to put over a series of increasingly problematic wounds, and the answers it provides are emptier than usual.

Stray observations:

  • The episode ends, of course, with a second wedding ceremony and renewal of vows, which is what always happens in a reality show when there's a troubled couple involved. Robbins, here, introduces the ceremony, hilariously, by saying that he doesn't want them to have to think about how the last wedding went. Yes, the wedding when the husband was PARALYZED. I'm sure he'll never think about that ever again and this event will completely rewrite that memory.

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