Is a whip the right conditioner?

Times Television Critic

“Tabatha’s Salon Takeover,” which premieres tonight at 10, is Bravo’s contribution to the growing sub-genre of “whip it” television, in which self-anointed experts, preferably with non-American accents, parachute into crisis situations -- a floundering restaurant, a discipline-challenged family -- and whip everyone into shape. As the title might indicate, “Tabatha’s Salon Takeover” provides this service for struggling hair salons. A “Kitchen Nightmares” setup, only with hair instead of food and stylist/salon owner Tabatha Coffey instead of Gordon Ramsay.

And therein lies the problem. For reasons that are self-evident, hair is not as interesting as food, salons are not as dynamic or dramatic as restaurants and Coffey, well, she’s no Gordon Ramsay. Colonel Saito from “The Bridge on the River Kwai” maybe, but no Gordon Ramsay.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there is an audience, beyond hair stylists, for a show set in a salon, though those looking for some sexed-up reality version of “Shampoo” should know, right off the bat, that ain’t happenin’. This is all about the business and passion of hair styling.


The pilot takes us to a local joint -- Ten Salon in Long Beach, where husband and wife team Chris and Kwanna have mortgaged themselves within a fare-thee-well creating a salon that is losing money on a daily basis and putting a strain on their marriage. Enter Tabatha. With her short white-blond hair, icy pale eyes and penchant for black, she strides through the salon barking questions and criticism like some graphic novel Nazi dominatrix who, for reasons that will be revealed later, just happens to have an Australian accent. You feel that her decision to forgo a riding crop was a last-minute one and could be reversed in subsequent episodes.

Needless to say, she is not pleased at all with what she sees. Not. Pleased. At. All. Through the questionable use of surveillance cameras, Tabatha determines that the stylists are sloppy and yet micromanaged. She finds Kwanna’s use of a Bible-thick rules and regs guide ridiculous and Chris’ passion for the whole project questionable. (Apparently Tabatha receives a monetary bonus for each time she uses the word “passion.”) Contrary to every management class offered post-Robber Baron, she shakes her head, rolls her eyes, spits out negative commentary and generally embodies the disapproving-mother image that has fueled the psychotherapy industry for so many years. Kwanna and one stylist are reduced to tears and everyone else just looks shell-shocked and very soft around the middle.

If nothing else, “Tabatha’s Salon Takeover” makes one appreciate the fine art of being a successful “whip it” expert. Ramsay, Jo Frost of ABC’s “Supernanny” and the gals from Fox’s “Nanny 911" are all equally tough as nails -- Ramsay famously screams and swears and occasionally walks off set in disgust, Frost fixes parents with those judging hooded eyes and tells them they are ruining their children -- but still you feel the love. Each seems to genuinely care about their wayward clients, their devotion to their craft is obvious and they take great pleasure in turning a crisis around.

Tabatha, on the other hand, just can’t believe how stupid everyone is, and is quite comfortable saying so. Contempt never plays well on television and unfortunately she is quite lavish with it. And frankly, at the end of the day, it’s not clear what her added value is -- the major improvement to Ten Salon comes via a redesign, which would seem to fall under the purview of another reality show entirely, “Trading Spaces” maybe. She says she has given the staff more freedom, more confidence, but even as she sums up with a final pep talk, you can see all the stylists keeping very still, like a crowd counting the minutes until the cobra gets bored and slides away.

The point of shows like these is to infuse the viewer with hope. Here is a seemingly hopeless situation, but bring in a clear-eyed expert and look at the results. Watching “Tabatha’s Salon Takeover,” which is unrated, you can’t help but wonder if there shouldn’t be a “whip it” show for “whip it” shows -- in which an expert would review the tapes and offer advice on how to turn a bad situation around. They could start with this one.