Motivational reality programs are hard to do correctly, and can be excruciating to watch. Producers must walk a thin line in order to make their series inspiring instead of exploitative. They must show that they are honestly invested in their subject and the changes the subject want to make, but they have to do so in a caring, touching way, or else the program runs the risk of falling into the category of a “scared straight” episode of a trashy talk show, one that puts terrified teenagers into a jail cell and films them crying for hours. When done well, each installment ends with a sense of accomplishment for everyone involved — the host, the subject, the viewers — but when done poorly, it’s an embarrassing watch that leaves you feeling dirty. TNT’s Wake Up Call, hosted by wrestler-turned-actor (and hopefully soon turned-politician) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson goes back and forth between these two extremes from episode to episode but always lands on the good side, and ends with an emotional bang.
Each episode of Wake Up Call focuses on a different person who needs help with some aspect of their life, whether it’s a troubled teen dropout, a workaholic ruining his family business and marriage, or a defeated former NBA star. The Rock (who will always be known as The Rock and never as Dwayne Johnson) swoops in to help them out, usually with the help of another expert. They are given motivational speeches, the means to better themselves, and ultimatums — it’s all pretty run of the mill for a program like this.
The key to Wake Up Call is, predictably, The Rock. The host can make or break a motivational series, and The Rock is definitely the right person for a job like this. He doesn’t just handle hosting duties, as I originally expected, but goes deep into these people’s lives. He shows up at their houses, invades their schools, tracks them down when they try to bail, and really just sits down and talks with them in a brutally honest but always kindhearted way. He is huge but charming and puts his subjects at ease. He relates so easily to everyone from a druggy teen to an overweight emotional eater, and they all immediately feel comfortable opening up to him.
The Rock isn’t out of his wheelhouse here; as the series makes clear, The Rock has had his fair share of troubles: multiple arrests, eviction, his football dreams crushed. (His memoir, The Rock Says, is a pretty great read. Really.) He knows what he’s talking about, and he’s able to emphasize with his subjects and provide an example of how they can turn their lives around — but not in a showoff-y way where he blabs about his fame or money.
The pilot episode, which premieres Friday on TNT, is the better of the two I watched (the second is available for preview on TNT.com). The Rock helps out a teenager named Terrell who has been smoking weed, not going to class, and fighting with teachers. His mom’s in prison, and he’s been bounced around from house to house. Terrell’s dream is to become an MMA fighter and The Rock aims to help him out with that, but only if Terrell gets his GED first. The Rock isn’t an expert — he says so himself: “I don’t have all the answers. I’m clearly not Dr. Phil, but clearly I am better looking. And more humble” — but he knows how to get through to Terrell, mostly because he understands Terrell’s lack of motivation, his defeatism, and his knack for bailing when things are tough. He also knows that there is give-and-take involved here, and that if Terrell is motivated enough to study hard and get his GED, then The Rock has to fulfill his promise and get him a tryout at one of the leading MMA gyms.
Wake Up Call occasionally employs some cheesy and heavy-handed tactics, such as making Terrell pick up trash on the side of the road as The Rock reads off the reasons why the other prisoners are in jail, hammering home the point that all of them were once high school dropouts. In the second episode, when The Rock helps out an overweight football coach, it gets a little too into sensationalistic territory: The Rock makes Javier attend his own funeral. But at least it gets results.
What also works about Wake Up Call is that it doesn’t just spend a few week with someone and then hope it all works out; each episode spans months of time. The Rock follows up with Terrell to make sure he got his GED. He makes a deal with Javier that requires The Rock to show up months later, at the start of the football season, in order to check on his progress. The Rock is dedicated and committed, and he wants to make sure that everyone he’s helping is dedicated, too. It’s a far more emotional show than I’d like to admit — warning: there is so much crying in the pilot episode — but that means it’s actually a successful motivational show, one that gets you heavily invested in each person, and one that makes you root for good to happen.