Austerity TV: “Tabatha Takes Over”

Tabatha Coffey has to be one of the oddest reality stars in town with one of the oddest reality shows on TV.

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Coffey began her career on the Bravo reality show Shear Genius, which she parlayed into the show Tabatha Takes Over, also on BravoA hairstylist by training, TTO features Coffey intervening in struggling business, providing a brief and intense makeover of the business. In its first seasons (as Tabatha’s Salon Takeover) she focused her skills  specifically on salons.  But in the past couple of years she has extended her brand to restaurants, bars, and other small businesses within the service-sector. Coffey is a tough customer–hard on failing business owners and their often times dysfunctional staff.  She’s also an out Australian lesbian with amazing fashion sense and pretty good sexual politics.  It’s hard not to like her, and it’s easy to dislike the incompetent small business owners that she berates on their way to fiscal solvency.

If 24 and Homeland represent television’s most interesting responses to our post-9/11 world, then TTO might be our best window into life following the 2008 economic collapse. Coffey’s desire to help failing small business owners is admirable, but the undercurrent of the show represents our own popular misunderstandings and myths about money, power, and business in the age of austerity.

Let me lay out the show’s formula: a small business owner contacts Tabatha over the state of her troubled business (I use “her” both universally and particularly, as most of the owners featured are women). Tabatha pays a “surprise visit” to the owner, revealing that she has had secret camera’s in her business for the past several days.  These cameras generally reveal incompetence, uncleanliness, poor managerial skills, and an overall lack of vision.  In discussing her findings, Tabatha always gets the owner to reveal how much money they have lost on their ventures, and this leads to the show’s first money shot: the debt reveal.  The owner (sometimes in tears) admits they are thousands of dollars in debt, often times in excess of $100,000.  This is when Tabatha claims she is “fed up” and that she’s “taking over.”  From here, Tabatha enters the business, giving each employee lessons in their respective skills, effective management, and often provides the business with a much-needed makeover. Though she threatens that some employees might be fired, they rarely are (though each time the threat is highlighted with thunderous musical cues).  In the end, she leaves each business in better shape, and each owner slavishly thankful for her no-nonsense intervention.

The show’s gender politics are intriguing. As Tabatha focuses on the service economy (more on that later), and especially beauty and cosmetic businesses, many of her takeovers involve female owners. This reflects both the long-standing nature of these businesses and the new reality of women in the workforce. Though Tabatha never plays maternal or sentimental, one can see her as a lesbian success story imparting her wisdom on women and gay men (who show up with some regularity), those often times excluded implicitly or explicitly from the world of money, business training, etc. In this way she bears some resemblance to Suze Orman, another platinum blond lesbian offering tough-talking advice about financial survival to those often times out of the loop.

But Tabatha really enjoys a good shaming. Before she provides rescue, she must deal out a stern rebuke of the business owner for their personal, even moral, failures at running a business. Tabatha’s contempt is withering.  And in dressing down the failing owner before providing rescue, she mirrors the discourse used about the housing-market crash of 2008, and which still reverberates today in discussions about debt. Many commentators, particularly on the right wing, saw the failures of the housing market not in terms of predatory lending, but in the moral failure of home owners whose greed lead them into risky mortgages for homes they should have never hoped to own in the first place.  The structural issues of banks making predatory loans to uniformed consumers got pushed aside for an almost puritanical narrative of punishment for the greedy.  Though Tabatha attempts to bail businesses out (which we essentially refused to do for homeowners), she must first remind them of their failures, to make sure that the duly chastened business owner is aware that it is only her benign intervention that keeps them from bankruptcy.  This is where the debt-reveal is so important–that figure is meant to both startle the viewer (pleasurably, I believe) and make Tabatha’s mercy all the greater.

But like the housing crisis, Tabatha’s moralistic language belies what might really be going on in these businesses.  Don’t get me wrong; some of these people seem downright incompetent and some seem to have zero experience in their chosen business.  This week’s episode “Manikir Royale” features an African American woman who owns a struggling nail salon.  When asked about her prior experience, the owner reveals that she used to work in Human Resources and knew nothing about nail salons. Tabatha looks sternly at her for getting in over her head (and 60K in debt), but the question of how this woman got a small business loan is tellingly absent.  The restorative drama of Tabatha Takes Over can’t exist if the complexities of the economy and lending creep into the picture.  Instead, bootstrappery is imposed, and Tabatha, with drill-sergeant like severity, whips each business into shape. Each business is almost instantly improved, and in this regard other elements of the economy go unquestioned–with high unemployment, massive personal debt, and litle job security, some people just might not want a mani/pedi. But not in Tabatha’s world; if you run it efficiently, they will come.

The U.S. economy continues to sputter along with almost zero real growth. One of the only sectors to experience such growth is the service-sector, usually in the form of lower-paying work such as in restaurants and hospitality.  In this regard, TTO‘s focus on small business could prove a minor antidote to growing corporate consolidation, while playing into the long-standing conservative reverence for the small-business owner. But Tabatha Takes Over stands at a nexus of race, gender, sexuality, and capitalism like few shows on television, none I can think of really.  And though I can’t expect the show to be a treatise on the economy, I can still be troubled by the capitalist fantasia it presumes, and the schadenfreude of an audience who likes to see failing business owners get their benevolent comeuppance from Tabatha.