"He who filters your good name steals trash"
- Stan Laurel, Tit for Tat
And trash, albeit fascinating-like-a-car-wreck trash, is the operative word for The Swan, a two-season wonder that aired on Fox in 2004-05. (Don't count this one out, however, despite the DVD's name more episodes may be on the way.) The series grafts the basic premise of the ABC series Extreme Makeover with the tacky cliches of a beauty pageant, "the most unusual ever devised," so says host Amanda Byram. Both seasons along with an entire disc of extras have been compiled into a 5-DVD boxed set by Xenon Pictures and gaLAn Entertainment.
The 44-minute episodes, originally airing in an hour time slot, work like this: Each week, two women offer tearful stories about how acne-scarred skin or pointy noses or paunchy bellies are ruining their sex lives, their self-esteem, and how a chance to physically reinvented themselves in The Swan's three-month program would turn their lives around. A "dream team" of experts - several plastic surgeons, a dentist, a dietician/weight trainer, therapist, etc. - settle upon a radical makeover that invariably involves massive amounts of plastic surgery (liposuction, nose jobs, brow-lifts, tummy-tucks, often in 10-hour procedures), dental work (raise those gums, add those veneers!), a 1,200 calorie-a-day diet, hours of daily exercise and therapy. Contestants are locked away in carefully monitored apartments devoid of mirrors: they won't see themselves until the Big Reveal three months later.
And it's a good thing, too. After 10 hours in the operating room the women are hunched over under the weight of their new double-D breasts while their bandaged, swollen faces resemble plug ugly Harry Wilson in Frankenstein's Daughter. Locked away with little to do but transform, the women struggle to stay on the program and understandably grow homesick for various husbands, sons and daughters, some of whom are obviously not happy that their wives and mothers are laying their lives bare for Rupert Murdoch.
But the big day eventually does arrive and on a tacky set that resembles an ostentatious restaurant lobby, the women are brought out and see themselves in a mirror for the first time in three months. Reactions are always the same: the women gasp in shock, ask "Is this me!?" and sob uncontrollably at their newfound beauty, often dropping to the floor in weak-kneed emotion. Indeed, these exaltations of joy are so extreme you'd think they'd just been liberated from Auschwitz.
The beauty pageant aspect plays like an afterthought. Only one of the two women gets to advance to the pageant, though after $50,000 (at least) of free medical treatment few complain. Moreover, those contestants not advancing to the pageant get "one final surprise," an emotional reunion with their family, including drooling husbands who can't wait to get home and try out the new wife.
Through dripping with positive energy as each contestant emotionally thanks her doctors and coaches while they exude unbridled praise for their patient's beauty and tenacious drive, the program raises a lot of ethical concerns. The majority of contestants come into the program with very low and often misdirected self-esteem. Though the show emphasizes that emotional counseling is an integral part of the program (also videotaped in all its teary-eyed drama for the benefit of viewers), the implication is clear: radical physical change is a fix-all that will make your life better.
But as any qualified psychologist will tell you, three short months of weekly counseling isn't likely to affect any long-lasting positive change in women as fundamentally troubled as many of these seem to be. And what's going to happen to them after they say goodbye to their 24-7 support team and return home to their cheating husbands, overly-critical parents, etc.? (Season 2 kicks off with a glowingly disingenuous "Where Are They Now?" report.)
There's also something creepy about the transformations themselves. Going in, the women aren't disfigured, just mildly overweight (in most cases) and obsessive about this or that part of their body. The multiple surgeries and dental work, perhaps because they're performed by the same group of doctors result in 16 women retooled into variations of the same-styled generic Hollywood starlet/glamour queen/porno star. Though the cosmetic surgeons argue to the contrary, the women tend to lose their individual charms in a sea of false eyelashes, unnaturally white teeth and augmented lips. After a few episodes, The Swan begins to resemble an especially unsettling 1964 episode of Twilight Zone called "Number 12 Looks Just Like You," in which an ordinary-looking woman is forced to conform in an Orwellian culture of veritable Barbie dolls. (That nearly all of the contests are white and in their early 20s adds to the sameness.)
Video & Audio
The Swan is presented in full frame format with 5-6 episodes on the first four per single-sided discs, with bonus material on Disc 5. There's some digital break-up here and there, but the show is perfectly watchable as presented. The stereo is appropriately loud with good separations that do justice to the program's hyperbolic score. There are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
The bonus disc offers about 81 minutes worth of extra material, mostly unused footage from the show. There are outtakes for both seasons of the Beauty Pageant Rehearsals and Pre-Beauty Pageant Photo Shoot, the show's creator-producer (and on-camera "Life Coach" - hey, isn't there a conflict of interest here?) is on hand for How to Swan Yourself, there's an indescribably tacky Swan Tour of Hollywood straight out of a John Waters movie, while individual contestants are highlighted in Rachel Love-Fraser, Tawnya with Her Life Coach, and Kim's Confessions.
For the gawker in all of us The Swan is undeniably, morbidly fascinating. It's a sad testament to the disproportionate premium our first world culture puts on supposed beauty. Still, you may want to Rent It.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.