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Something crass lurks behind the do-gooder smile

Times Staff Writer

All this week on the “Today” show, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer and Al Roker have been standing amid the two-by-fours of several Habitat for Humanity houses being built right there in Rockefeller Plaza, doing their morning spiel in a caring-only zone re-dubbed “Humanity Plaza.”

The houses are going to victims of Katrina and Rita, while the more immediate spoils are going to Katie and Matt and Al, basking in their good works. Morning shows have to be happy in the worst of circumstances, and these have not been happy weeks. So they’ve remade happiness as blue state can-doism for the pobrecitos in the red states, with “Good Morning, America” adopting the Pass Christian, Miss., hometown of anchor Robin Roberts while GMA’s main competitor, “Today,” has made its set a virtual relief zone, the Gulf Coast’s misery becoming a kind of green room, with celebrity guests picking up a miked hammer and driving in a miked nail before going inside to plug their products.

Yeah, you say, but they’re helping. True. Except that charity on TV is never just about helping. It’s about being seen helping. And in order to be seen helping you need to parade the victim onstage too.

This continues to be the most grotesque, and voyeuristic, aspect of the feel-good genre led by ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and NBC’s new copycat “Three Wishes” -- that moment when the camera probes the face of the have-not to record their reaction (overwhelmed is accepted, but overwhelmed with tears is preferable) at their sudden good fortune.

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It is the one major demand that these shows, laden with the spirit of giving, put on their subjects. To be sure, the subjects are willing, even vying, to be on these shows, but there’s still an unsettling transaction taking place: Make your private pain public, act it out for us, let us set it to music, and let us appear to have grown from our proximity to you. And in exchange we will give you a new house and a ride in a stretch limo and who knows what else -- all the goodies that will inevitably, by their very goodi-ness, fix your problems. Oh, but we’re only here for a week.

In last Sunday’s two-hour premiere of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” it was the Rodriguez family of Ohio getting spirited away in a stretch limo for a spa week at an Akron Hilton while the show’s cheery cast set about demolishing and remaking their modest home. Master Sgt. Luis Rodriguez had lost a leg to a bomb in Iraq, where he’d heroically served as a combat medic. The show would give him a new bionic leg and his family an expensive new house easier for him to navigate.

There are any number of complex emotional reactions the receiver of such largesse can have, but “Extreme Makeover” was clear: The camera probed his stoic soldier’s gaze for gratitude or some moment of emotional catharsis, waiting for the payoff, until the whole thing became, inevitably, pornographic.

“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” has become so popular that First Lady Laura Bush sought out the show for a guest appearance, according to The Times this week. The Bush episode, set in Biloxi, Miss., will air in November, said “Extreme” executive producer Tom Forman, leaving out the word that comes after November, “sweeps.” It’s the equivalent of sitcom stunt casting, a ratings sweeps period staple. The Bushes have visited Louisiana and Mississippi multiple times without creating a convincing narrative about their compassion. So Mrs. Bush is resorting to a surer thing, guesting on a series where the compassion, if it doesn’t come across live, can be cobbled together in the editing room.

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That’s where they help wishes come true on NBC’s “Three Wishes,” hosted by country singer Amy Grant. The series, which debuted last Friday, is a naked attempt to out-exploit the exploitation of “Extreme Makeover.” The show’s premise is creepy: Grant and her team of telegenic do-gooders pull into a small town in America, where they hold a macabre kind of talent show in search of the saddest story. Oh, and we’re only here for a week.

The winners, in the debut episode, included a little girl whose skull had been horrifically damaged in a car accident and a boy who’d lost his dad and now wished for nothing more than to be adopted by his stepfather.

For the boy, Grant personally flagged down the local judge, who was tooling around in his airplane, while the girl not only got a dream playhouse/rehab room and the surgery she needed, but townspeople pitched in to help cover the medical bills.

“Abby was just excited about everything little thing,” Grant said, congratulating herself. “And you could tell Leo and LeAnn were so touched.”

In these handshake deals where everybody wins, it’s the kids who wear the most appropriate expressions -- bemused.

And so on Tuesday, on “Extreme Today,” Couric was having some trouble getting a 7-year-old girl whose family had lost their home to play along. Couric wanted her to dance to Beyonce, then come look at her new bed and clothes, then dance again. In the 7-year-old’s face you didn’t see heartbreak or struggle, you only saw a kind of fun spontaneity perfectly suited to her age and to the moment. She was in a hurricane, and now she was on TV, and people were giving her things.

“Stop looking at your stuff for two seconds,” Couric said at one point, trying to direct her back to center stage. She wanted little Jada to dance again.

“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret,” goes the Gospel of Matthew. Failing this, goes the gospel according to TV giving, put both hands together and give yourself a round of applause.

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