Like the work of Robert Flaherty, Albert and David Maysles, and Allen Funt, reality TV has certainly given us a lot to think about regarding the nature of nonfiction filmmaking and the roles that directorial perspective and audience manipulation play in documentary reality. Even some shows that have a queasy tabloid aspect might deserve credit for bringing important issues to the attention of viewers. In the case of Starving Secrets with Tracey Gold, there's nothing ambiguous about what's on the screen: this is pure exploitation, crude and maladroit and drenched in sanctimony that just makes the whole think stink even worse. That probably sounds kind of strong, and it may be silly to get outraged, or even indignant, about a show like this. On the other hand, getting angry may be the best way to increase your chances of staying awake while you're watching it.
An opening message reads, "The women you are about to meet are secretly battling eating disorders." By the time you've formed the thought that the fact that they're "secretly" doing this while appearing on national TV is a sad commentary on the kind of audience numbers Lifetime expects to rack up on a Friday night, the message continues: "They have agreed to share their stories in hopes of getting the help they need." The premiere episode features two young women, a twenty-two-year-old bulimic named Melissa and a twenty-eight-year-old anorexic from Toronto named Rivka. Of the two, Melissa seems marginally more pitiable. Having struggled with anorexia as a child and received treatment for it when she was twelve, she traces her current situation back to a lonely Halloween night when she was fifteen and stranded at home, alone, with a bowl of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Her condition has left her in an unbroken cycle of unemployment, poverty, and misery; as Gold explains in a voiceover, "Melissa has spent much of her life in eating disorder treatment, eight times in all. But every time she shows improvement, her insurance cuts her off." In other words, she's turning to a TV show for help because her insurance plan is designed to keep her just out of reach of full treatment. This is some Brave New World shit, and reason enough for speculation that a reality show about the making of this reality show would be more interesting and valuable than the show we're watching.
If the subjects are in it to get the help they have no other way of getting, what's Gold in it for? No doubt she really cares about people who are going through something she can relate to herself--at the beginning of the show, the former Growing Pains star reminds us that she herself used to suffer from an eating disorder, for the benefit of any viewers who haven't committed their twenty-year-old copies of People to memory. That said, she probably didn't have to work too hard to overcome her concerns that, in addition to giving her a chance to help some people. doing this show might extend her fifteen minutes by as much as twenty seconds. (Gold reportedly started starving herself after the writers on Growing Pains started giving the other actors fat jokes to deliver at her expense. She was eventually suspended from work after her emaciated appearance became an issue. At the same time, the writers were trying to work around Kirk Cameron's becoming a born-again Christian, a move that had him objecting to anything in the scripts that he found smutty and led to the firing of an actress who had posed for Playboy. I've never actually seen an episode of Growing Pains, but if Trey Parker and Matt Stone ever write a Broadway musical about its making, I'm selling off my own body organs until I can afford a front-row ticket.)
How does Gold, who has published a book about her own anorexia and also played an anorexic teenager in a TV movie, use her first-hand experience to help women like Melissa and Rivka? She reads the copy she's been handed, describing their backgrounds and their plights. She also does a lot of driving, wearing an expression not unlike the one Jensen Ackles wears on Supernatural when someone he cares about is in danger of being incinerated by demons and he wants to show that he strongly objects. Sometimes, her driving takes her to an actual rendezvous with one of the women she's so keen to help. For instance, she meets Melissa, at Melissa's request, at a local food bank where she feels safe. If you're looking forward to hearing what one D-list celebrity anorexia survivor says to a current sufferer, you're pretty much out of luck, though, because the point of the meeting turns out to be to give Gold a chance to stare and nod at Melissa until her mouth stops moving, at which point Gold, stop the presses, gives her a hug. "Melissa's so sweet and vulnerable," says Gold, "I just want to help her." I guess that if Melissa had picked her nose, spit on the floor, and asked, "So, what do you hear from ol' Thicke of the Night?", all bets would be off.
So, Gold "helps" both Melissa and Rivka by arranging for them to be booked, free of charge, at eating disorder centers. (She takes full credit for this, as if she'd done it herself single-handedly, but I'll bet the producers at least let them borrow a phone or something.) Melissa responds well to treatment, which is kind of a drag, since there's only so much dramatic potential in watching someone eating healthily in a comfortable, controlled environment. The problem patient turns out to be the five-foot, six-inch Rivka, who weighs in at 76 pounds when she arrives, and who drives her counsellors to distraction with her compulsive walking to keep her weight down. After sixty-three days, Rivka, whose walking has reached the crisis point. is shipped off to an in-patient facility in Eugene, Oregon, where she is "not allowed to walk at all, or eat without supervision." This show is geared towards upbeat conclusions, but Rivka will have spent six months in treatment before she, too, is deemed hug-worthy.
She does look healthier at the end of the show, as does Melissa, though I don't know if it was her idea to be filmed lolling on the grass as if she were posing for a CD cover. It would be glib as hell to suggest that getting professional treatment for their illnesses might not be a fair trade for being publicly humiliated on the Lifetime network, though I do hope that none of the women whose self-esteem issues once put their lives in danger will make the mistake of risking all the progress they've made by watching themselves on this show. There are lots of images of them eating or bent over the toilet, and somebody had the bright idea of applying some kind of sinister rippling effect to the footage, which seems meant to make it look as garish and horrifying as teenagers in hippie headbands smoking pot in one of those old cautionary-instructional films that Turner Classic Movies runs late Friday nights, as part of TCM Underground. Even Rivka gets the ripply-trippy effect when she's exercising, and you haven't lived until you've seen the image of a young woman walking get the '60s Dragnet treatment. Premiering the week after Thanksgiving and set to run during a period when more Americans than not are going to be tempted to wonder if they might have an eating disorder, Starving Secrets is poised to be the feel-bad TV non-event of the holiday season, if not the year.