Watching "I Want a Famous Face," I wanted aspirin -- and, later, as I thought more and more about MTV's makeover documentary series, cyanide. This new show would harsh even the most reality-friendly viewer's mellow, as it tracks self-loathing wannabes going under the knife to get Brad Pitt's nose and Britney Spears's bosom. It's like watching people play Mr. Potato Head with their own bodies and minds. Goodbye uniqueness and self-acceptance, hello karaoke of the soul.
MTV, like the entertainment world at large, has always fed the hungry beast of celebrity worship. It gives its viewers tantalizing glimpses of gaudy cribs and backstage mania, and it transforms "Real World" and "Road Rules" nobodies into network BMOCs. Its reverence for fame is almost religious. One of its other shows, "Becoming," gives ecstatic real people a chance to doll up like Shakira or Nick Lachey or Nelly Furtado and then re-create one of that singer's videos -- a sort of Queen Latifah or King of Pop or Prince for a day.
But "I Want a Famous Face" takes fame-a-holism to a whole new level of pathology, as it celebrates young people who are trying to erase their individuality permanently. Fans who are having plastic surgery in order to resemble Kate Winslet, Pam Anderson, or J.Lo are right up there with Madonna stalkers in the realm of having big, unresolved issues. They have distorted and fragile self-images, perhaps from having studied one too many glossy magazine photo spreads. They want celebrity skin, almost literally.
This is a reality the show, which airs Monday nights at 10:30, ignores. Each episode chronicles one person's "before" and "after," including gruesome shots of the "during." Some of the subjects are impersonators -- Mia, for example, who gets paid to play Spears and wants to augment her figure. But the most pathos-steeped episode follows ordinary twin brothers from Arizona, Matt and Mike, who submit to assorted facial reconstructions in order to look like Pitt. And their fetish is quite particular, too: One brother wants to become Pitt circa "Meet Joe Black," the other Pitt circa "Legends of the Fall."
With their narrow, acne-pocked faces, the boys are looking for a confidence transplant, and more dates with girls as a result. "We are ugly, and we want to correct that," one of them says. At the end of their long recuperation from surgery, of course, they don't look even slightly like Pitt. Todd Rundgren's second cousin, maybe.
What distinguishes "I Want a Famous Face" from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" or even "Extreme Makeover" is that it doesn't profile people creating better versions of themselves; it's all about those who are annihilating themselves in order to become someone else. Certainly, Matt and Mike need help in realizing their potential; they seem like an alienated pair who could use sessions with the Fab Five, as well as with a good therapist. But clearly the solution to their problem is not married to Jennifer Aniston.
MTV does make a point of noting that it's merely filming the makeover process, that each of the show's subjects had already planned to have surgery when the network showed up. And each episode includes a cautionary moment, a brief sequence in which a young person describes his or her botched surgery experience -- for instance, a woman who says she got implants to look like Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich" and then got rheumatoid arthritis from them. But ultimately, the show sympathizes with its primary subjects' dreams and never challenges them on it. When the surgeon greets his patients in each episode, the shot freezes on him, and we hear a small bit of angelic music. In the context of "I Want a Famous Face," it seems, the surgeon is holding the keys to heaven.