Animal Planet
Jeff Jensen
October 22, 2011 AT 05:18 PM EDT


Three people move into a house where they are forced to grapple with terrifying entities uniquely designed to agitate their worst fears. Yes, that describes the FX fright-fest American Horror Story. But that’s also the new Animal Planet series My Extreme Animal Phobia. In this reality show, people don’t have to worry about the Rubber Man sneaking into their rooms at night. But they do have to sleep with a rubber snake before kissing a real one. The premiere episode (which aired last night) introduced us to Dr. Robin Zasio, a clinical psychologist who runs a treatment center for anxiety disorders out of a modest house in a Sacramento neighborhood. Her first patients: Seth, 46, a fuzzy, frumpy, sad-eyed soul scared of snakes; Marvin, 47, a tatted-up tough guy scared of pit bulls, and Jahara, 27, a mother of two with whimsically colored fingernails who is scared of spiders. Dr. Zasio began her five-day course of “exposure therapy” by asking the trio to watch videos. She began with snake-spooked Seth. “Ladies first!” he protested, trying to defer to Jahara. Nope. “There’s a method to my madness,” quipped Dr. Zasio with a really awkward wink. Then she made them decorate their rooms with photos of their phobia.

After treks to a science museum and a park to see their respective wretches in action, the threesome returned to Dr. Zasio’s house to find their rooms infested with plastic and plushy iterations of their phobias. Then they had to spend the night with the real thing sleeping next to them. (Marvin didn’t think it was fair that Jahara and Seth got to keep their animals in glass containers but his baby pit pull was free to roam his room. Dr. Zasio offered to hook him up with a crate if he wished.) Then, the final confrontation: Being forced to hold and fondle their fear.

The stories seemed sincere, the struggles were poignant. Marvin’s very specific form of cynophobia dated back to childhood, when he watched a pit bull maul a friend so badly that the kid needed 1000 stitches. But Seth’s effort to get a grip on his ophidiophobia was the pilot’s most riveting storyline. It helped that Seth was an endearing, entertaining personality who could express his angst with killer lines (the best: “I need a hug and a bottle of vodka”) and sweaty-faced, bug-eyed expressions. At one point, Seth exploded in rage over Dr. Zasio’s tactics, then dissolved into a whimpering puddle. “I don’t like this,” he cried. The roots of Seth’s terror snaked back to a single incident during high school, when a cruel summer camp counselor grabbed a frog that Seth had found and wanted to keep for a pet and fed it to a snake for sick giggles. Gulp. Dr. Zasio believed it was the counselor’s horror-show betrayal, not the snake that had marked Seth. To facilitate the healing catharsis that was needed, the shock doc forced slowly-improving Seth to first plant a smooch on a yellow snake, then (in an effectively chilling twist) feed a large dead rat to a yellow python. (Why not a frog?) Using a stick, Seth lowered the lifeless rodent into glass cage. The coiled serpent kept cool, didn’t move a muscle — and then jumped and pounced. Seth yelped, but held strong onto the stick as the snake wrapped its mouth around the rat. Later, reflecting on the moment, Seth said: “It took me right back to the moment when Froggy was being eaten.” (Sorry, but I laughed.) Seth began pitting out his green T-shirt as he watched the snake swallow its furry food whole. But disgust gradually morphed into circle-of-life appreciation for the way nature works. In the epilogue, we learned that Seth had adopted a pet snake and named her Cleo, after Cleopatra. “I don’t know if I love snakes,” he said, “but I’m going to try and love this snake.”

I can’t tell you anything about Jahara and her arachnophobia. I fast forwarded her scenes. I don’t do spiders. And no, I’d never do this show to get over my fear. I’m perfectly content to remain a wimpy spider-wuss the rest of my life. How about you? What’s your extreme animal phobia? Let our message boards be your therapy.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen 

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