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New series 'Starting Over' makes life change a reality

Coaches help women tackle personal issues on television

Ever wonder what it's like to have your cage rattled in rehab? Outside of addicts, few people get to see what life is like inside these therapeutic crucibles where dark secrets are revealed, crippling fears are confronted, and destructive habits are uprooted.

But if you watch the new weekday program "Starting Over," you get a pretty good notion of how it feels to submit your personality to an extreme makeover in a rehabilitation setting.

This syndicated series from the makers of MTV's "The Real World," that hardy pioneer of "reality" programming, puts six women in a communal house in Chicago and tapes them as they deal with one another and with a variety of tough issues: weight, booze, self-esteem, anger, codependence -- the whole fun-pack. It premiered last month and is shown on WCVB-TV (Channel 5).

Two "life coaches" help each woman establish goals that will affect her in significant and healthy ways. It's like having Dr. Phil on house call.

"Starting Over" moves the participants through the gantlet briskly -- usually a stay of eight to 10 weeks. Once a woman attains her goals, or if she stubbornly refuses to engage fully in the process, she's pushed out of the nest and a new woman takes her place.

This novel premise packs an unexpected amount of drama, emotion, insight, and surprise into an hour.

"It's a unique hybrid, combining the soap genre, the talk genre, and the reality genre," said Robert Schork, assistant managing editor of Soap Opera Weekly. "They've taken old wine from different bottles and mixed them together into an intriguing new blend."

"Real World" creators Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray came up with "Starting Over" after surveying the daytime landscape.

"Oprah has been doing her thing successfully, and Dr. Phil has carved out his niche," Bunim said. "But the soaps have been struggling, and the talk shows have been shifted out of their spots. This is the next step. It's a real drama about people who have made some rocky choices and deserve an opportunity to start over."

One of the coaches, Rana Walker, lays some good, old-fashioned common sense on the residents. The head of a motivational company, Walker went to a Philadelphia casting call to try out as a contestant.

She was seeking ways to expand her business, but when the life-coach role was explained, she decided she was ideally suited to be the helper, not the helped. She also has narrowly missed the cut twice to be a tribe member on "Survivor."

Her colleague is Rhonda Britten, 42, founder of the Fearless Living Institute in Boulder, Colo. A regular on Montel Williams's show, she also hosts the British series "Help Me Rhonda," a 30-day crash course in personal transformation.

Is it possible for people to make significant personal adaptations rapidly? Some experts are beginning to think so. "Twenty years ago, psychologists would have said there is a low probability of turning someone around quickly," said Michael Mahoney, a psychology professor at the University of North Texas who specializes in human-change processes. "But the scientific community is beginning to recognize that abrupt change [is] becoming more common. Some people get stuck in a pattern. It may be that taking any risk to change is what's needed to get them out of the rut."

But have the producers been stirring the pot -- as they are accused of doing in so many reality shows -- by instigating problems to get juicy footage? "These women are filled with emotions because they're changing their lives," Britten said. "They're nervous. They're scared to death. We don't have to manufacture drama. It's there by itself."

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