The Watcher - Under the knife

Plastic surgery programs show their ugly side

Whenever someone mentioned "plastic surgery," I used to think about Joan "Ain't Nothin' Real Anymore" Rivers. Then I moved to Atlanta, and strippers' boob jobs came to mind first, then Joan Rivers. Now plastic surgery is the latest must-see TV, and as each network tries to put a new twist on the phenomenon, each show gets more deeply disturbing.

Almost done with its second season, ABC's "Extreme Makeover" (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.) popularized "plastic surgery for the needy." The hour-long show chronicles the transformation of two individuals, often down on their luck but hard-working folks who have suffered from ugly their whole lives. But like "The Six Million Dollar Man," we have the technology to rebuild these people. We can't make them faster or stronger, but we can make them more beautiful.

Admittedly, some of them need help. Take poor Kim. Her busted, snaggletooth smile was the sort of image that could inspire the masses to floss after every meal. The extensive list of dental procedures she needed included bridges, partial dentures, five veneers, two crowns, repositioning lips and gums, and extracting 10 teeth, which she couldn't afford. "Extreme Makeover" gets angel credit for the new teeth, corrective vision surgery and even the removal of her third nipple. If they'd stopped there, they would have restored Kim. But the breast augmentation, nose job, eyelid lift and liposuction seemed excessive. And by the way, if she's so hard working, how about a few extra minutes jogging instead of lipo?

But Fox's "The Swan" (Mondays, 9 p.m.) trumps "Extreme Makeover" in the number of procedures performed on a single person. Folks, we're hitting Joan Rivers' numbers here, but she at least spread her work out over decades. In each episode, two Plain Jane women compete for the privilege to participate in a beauty competition where they vie to be crowned The Swan. In addition to multiple surgeries, the women hit the gym, go on diets and visit therapists. Kudos to the show for including exercise and therapy, which may spark lifestyle changes, but the number of medical procedures the surgeons recommend seems dangerous.

Take Tawnya, a 40-year-old mother who wanted to look 10 years younger. Her makeover plan included a nose job, brow lift, mid-face-lift, under-eye fat removal, lip augmentation, and Botox, collagen and fotofacial treatments. And that's just for her face. They also planned a tummy tuck, lipo and extensive dental work. Tawnya turned down the face-lift and nose job, much to her surgeon's disappointment. The show's cast kept encouraging her to reconsider, but Tawnya declined, saying that she wanted to be able to recognize herself. When she lost her chance to compete in the beauty competition, the experts coldly observed: She should have opted for more surgery.

By far the most twisted show is MTV's "I Want a Famous Face" (Mondays, 10:30 p.m.). MTV camera crews follow young adults who have opted for plastic surgery to look more like their favorite celebrities, including Elvis, Pam Anderson, Brad Pitt and a pre-op transsexual who gets facial work and breast implants to look like J. Lo. Although they go through fewer procedures and foot their own bills, the subjects don't seem emotionally healthy enough to cope with their decisions. They don't want to be the best they can be, they want to be the best celebrity they can be. They aren't fixing pointy noses, they're getting someone else's nose.

There is one good thing to say about "I Want a Famous Face," though: Thanks to graphic shots of surgeons carving off 15 pounds of skin and shoving saline implants under bloody flaps of skin, it's abundantly clear that plastic surgery is serious business.

Aspiring plus-size model Jennette is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with plastic surgery shows. Jennette wanted to look like actress Kate Winslet, so she had her stomach stapled, her excessive skin surgically removed and fake breasts implanted. A GQ cover featuring a statuesque Winslet frequently flashed on screen as Jennette explained why she wanted to look like her idol.

Meanwhile, it has been announced that Winslet is suing GQ for airbrushing that image to make her look too thin.