The death of a beautiful woman is a poetic thing, Poe once wrote, and with The Swan we witness the converse: The birth of a beautiful woman is a wretched thing. A foul blend of condescension and self-obsession, this reality series takes unremarkable ladies and, through drastic surgery -- nose jobs, chin implants, breast enlargement, liposuction -- renders them nearly unrecognizable. After three months of mirror-free living (and some Miss Piggy hairstyling), they squeal at their reflections and submit their slightly bolstered egos to destruction as they compete for a spot in the ''ultimate beauty pageant.''
Look, if the show were as honest about its inherent mean streak as ''Average Joe'' or ''The Bachelor,'' it might have been dark fun. But ''Swan,'' which cribs liberally from ''Extreme Makeover'' (down to its graphics) and fixer-upper shows like ''Queer Eye'' and ''Trading Spaces,'' masquerades as an earnest, up-with-women series -- a nasty trick, considering it's actually a misogynistic mix of TV's twin vices: commercialism and conformity. Like ''Queer Eye'''s hip outfits and ''Spaces''' edgy rooms, ''Swan'' churns out women who are preapproved packages of beauty: big breasts, little noses, pearly teeth. The disturbing assessment of one contestant was pure, breezy sales copy: ''She's surrendered to transformation.''
It's tempting to blame ''Swan'' on the smug makeover team, who advise ''feminizing'' women and describe a post-op patient as if she were a genetically modified fruit (''I've given her an alluring, more tantalizing face''). The show desperately promotes its angle -- that it's here to help these ladies realize their potential; thus, the conversions include ''life coaching'' and therapy. But breakthroughs don't come in 90-day convenience packs, and, oh, yes, meaningful lives can be achieved without cartoonishly huge knockers.
The contestants are hardly more likable. These are not women with cleft lips or small, undeveloped twins sprouting from their necks. These are women who are just sick and tired of not being pretty. Contestant Kristy Garza wept because she didn't know what to do with her hair; her rival Cristina Tyree was tortured because a saggy postpartum tummy meant she couldn't belly dance in public.
The self-involvement is only matched by the self-loathing. Consider first-round winner Rachel Love-Fraser, nose chiseled off, hair extensions swaying, howling like a lusty animal at her new face: ''I don't look anything like that giiirrrlll!'' That moment was more chilling than anything Poe ever dreamed. Especially when you think of all the little girls watching it.