Combining elements of makeover fantasies, petal-strewn dating programs, Japanese game shows, magazine columns of the snag-a-man Cosmo sort, and primitive folklore, Plain Jane (the CW, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET) brushes the pleasure receptors with an odd texture of fluff. For its purposes, a plain Jane is a shy, awkward, style-allergic young woman bearing the weight of a long-standing crush on her drooping shoulders. (A montage nods to archetypal examples including Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed, and Taylor Swift in “You Belong With Me,” singing to her frumped-up reflection in the bedroom mirror.) Each week, one such wallflower comes onto the show and into the glamorous clutches of hostess Louise Roe, and Plain Jane churns out an assembly-line fairy tale reflecting current trends in gender politics, flirting etiquette, and casual wear. The show takes reality TV one coquettishly shod step in a new direction in its quest to package romance and myth.
Roe advertises herself as a fashion journalist and stylist “hailing from London but now based in L.A.,” and she plays her role with perfection. She is faintly alien, plausibly posh, strategically tacky, and Britishly skinny, her eyelashes thicker than her forearms. She identifies herself as a “fairy godmother”—one incorporating aspects of the mentor, the personal shopper, and the borderline-bitchy rom-com best friend—and the elves of the sound team help to fill in the sense of fairy magic. During the intro, they lay on a sonic starburst—a synthesizer’s answer to Tinkerbell’s sparking wand—just at the moment that she makes the big promise to effect a metamorphosis. Plain Jane, Roe says, will be “transformed into a new woman with the style and confidence to surprise the man of her dreams on a romantic date.” The real star of the show is that concept—a mission statement so clear and concise that you can practically feel the mineral water fizzing in the pitch meeting.
Sizing up her first project, 24-year-old Cristen, Roe musters, “Well, she’s …sweet,” the pause loaded with pity and noble restraint. This is the most polite way of stepping around the matter of Cristen’s inattention to surface charms. Also, it is the most complete description of Cristen’s personality such as we see it expressed. Too superficial to be insincere, the show never even pretends to care about her interests or her character. What matters is that she’s quick with a toothy laugh and conceivably pure of heart—a worthy sacrifice to the gods of love.
Appropriate to its storybook quality, Plain Jane unfolds in clearly labeled chapters. At “Step 1: The First Meeting,” Cristen goes to lunch with Roe in West Hollywood, confessing that she’s only been on one date in her whole life and that she has spent six years carrying a torch, a heavy-duty industrial torch, for a guy named Ty. The hostess proposes that, it being Ty’s day off, they ought to go check him out covertly while he chills with his bros in the park. This prospect, like all prospects, prompts Cristen to squeal at high pitch and great length. Not to worry, says Louise: “I invented stalking boys!” Given this claim, some of you fellas might expect the pair to shadow Ty from a surveillance van specially equipped to create fake online dating profiles and bawlingly irrational 3 a.m. phone calls. Sadly, their ride was just a Range Rover with tinted windows.
I can’t discern whether the score on the review copy the CW sent me consisted of temp music, but I pray that it did not. The general public needs to appreciate how, in “Step 2: The Stake Out,” a punchy trumpet-forward rendition of the James Bond theme gives way to Yello’s “Oh Yeah,” with its John Hughes-approved groans and chooka-chookas, upon a Ty sighting. He’s cute! Frolicking in the park, employing an assured underhand grip when tossing a Frisbee, he looks like a healthy dog that’s gotten into some good-quality hair gel. In the Rover, Cristen trembles at the idea of declaring her crush on him: “What if it ruins our friendship?” Talking the girl through her anxieties, Roe asks if there’s anything else she’s afraid of. “Snails,” is the answer. “I’m really scared of snails.”
Thus, upon flipping to “Step 3: Facing Her Biggest Fear,” we see Louise and Cristen settle in for a meal at a French restaurant. A waiter appears at tableside with a mysterious vessel swathed in white linen, announcing it as “the pièce de résistance,” at which point Plain Jane takes a sharp left turn into the land of mild gross-out antics. Cristen tries mightily to resist the unveiled pièce, recoiling at what the camera records as a colorless glass vase with a flared mouth overspilling with 100 live snails and one $1,000 Bloomingdale’s gift card. In order to earn her shopping spree—and thus be fetchingly attired to announce her love for Ty—Cristen must confront her escargotphobia, a process that involves further squealing and attendant heavy breathing. “Do you feel a little bit exhilarated?” asks Roe, brows arched. Some sources trace the expression “plain jane” to early criticism of Jane Eyre, but Step 3 calls to mind a different Brontë sisters moment. So wonderfully subtle in employing a slimy snail tube as a metaphor for sexual experience, it led me to reflect on Wuthering Heights and the rock mass over the Fairy Cave, apprehended by Cathy with fear and desire: “The abrupt descent of Penistone Crags particularly attracted her notice.”
With this hazing complete, we move on to “Step 4: The Transformation Begins,” which features a number of the usual tropes (the changing-room montage) and the occasional small twist. At one point, Roe has Cristen try on a pair of bell-bottom-ish pants: “If you’ve got hips or a big butt—which you don’t, but you have a, you know, cute butt—the flare really balances out and slims the hips.” Thwarting expectations, the fairy godmother puts the princess in a pair of jeggings—which, you know, slim nothing—and sends her off to a dog park in Laurel Canyon. This is “Step 5: Date Training,” said to document a “confidence-building game”: Instructed to chat up boys and connected to a shock-emitting device (“Any time you fall back into your plain-Jane ways, we’re gonna give you a zap!”), the girl enjoys a sunny afternoon of lighthearted aversion therapy.
The moment of truth comes quickly: Cristen in front of a mirror wearing bare shoulders and too much foundation. “Is that person sexy?” asks Roe. “Yes,” squeals the young lady, not incorrectly. (To be certain, that sexy person has no personality, but Jane of course dressed herself with no personality to begin with.) I’m pleased to spoil the news that Ty, learning of Cristen’s constant crush, confesses that the vibe is reciprocal. Well, that’s sweet! Somewhere bluebirds are smooching. Meanwhile, a question posed at the outset remains blissfully unresolved: “Will it be true love?” It is pleasant enough to live in the hazy hope that it will be.