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'Wishes' gives, then pats itself on the back

The word ''shameless" goes only a small way in characterizing NBC's ''Three Wishes." This is a do-gooder reality series that rubs your nose in altruism until you cry hot tears of guilt, gratitude, envy, whatever. While new age piano tinkles in the background like Coldplay jamming after a tofu souffle, the show seeks out the poor and broken of this world in order to lift up their souls for our viewing pleasure.

It also loudly plugs a couple of product names because, as we all know, corporate entities need love, too.

''Three Wishes," which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 7, is a clear descendent of ABC's ''Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," but it's even tackier with sap if you can imagine that. In each episode, the staff -- most notably singer Amy Grant -- sets up a ''wish tent" in a small American town, where citizens come to tell hardship stories. Finally, three people are awarded their wishes -- tonight, for instance, a disfigured kid named Abby is given many special gifts to improve her daily life, including a workout room with a lap pool.

It's hard to quibble with such a philanthropic series, even while its motives are, of course, Nielsen-based. But it's easy to quibble with the condescension, fraudulence, and manipulation of ''Three Wishes," as every single scene is ruthlessly choreographed to put a lump in our throats. One of tonight's wishes is a high school's request for a new football field, now that the coach has leukemia. After fake tension, since, obviously, the show isn't going to feature an ungranted wish, the field is presented in a bravura sequence out of ''Die Hard," with the ''Three Wishes" people arriving in a helicopter to a stadium full of cheering locals.

In other words, the show isn't exactly modest about its good will. There are one too many scenes of Grant and her hunky worker bees desperately meeting with officials and retailers to solicit favors for the little people. The show trolls for appreciation. By the time every last gift has been bestowed upon little Abby, Abby's mother is almost unable to utter yet another thank you to Grant. She's like the actors who win so many awards in a year, they finally just want to collect their statues and go home. And we don't much want to see them again for a while, either.

One of tonight's wishes is by a kid whose father died when he was 6, but whose stepfather has taken extraordinary care of him. The boy wants to honor the man, which is touching, and the appearance of a gift truck is sweet, even while the presentation scene plays like a paid ad. But much more is in store for the guy, and by the end of the hour he has been thrust in front of an audience and pushed into crying. You could almost start to wish ''Three Wishes" would just leave him alone.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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