Everyone remembers their first Faking It. Everyone has their favourite episode (mine, and that of millions of others, is the one featuring the bloke in the Navy who learnt how to be a drag act, though the punk who turned himself into an orchestra conductor comes a pretty close second). Now in its fifth series, the programme has acquired cult status - they've even had the what-happened- to-the-people-in-Faking-It? follow-up. That's how much we care.
For those of you who have somehow managed to miss it, the series is based on the Pygmalion principle: take a person out of their natural environment, turn them into something completely different (in four weeks) and then see if they can convince a panel of pros that they are the real thing. It's a basic formula that could so easily have resulted in another crude makeover series, or an excuse to jeer at stereotypes playing stereotypes. But Faking It has succeeded because of its subtlety and humanity and (with a couple of notable exceptions) the generosity and sheer guts of the people who agree to be involved. It should really be compulsory viewing for all cynics who have lost faith in their fellow man, and especially exploitative programme-makers.
So, inevitably, there has to be the odd episode that reminds us just how tricky it is to pull off the Faking It magic, and "The Football Manager"(Tuesday, 9pm, Channel 4) is one of these. At first, the challenge seems to have all the potential of a classic: the erstwhile chess pro and all-round Teflon head Maximilian Devereaux gets four weeks to become that epitome of uncouth, ball-breaking masculinity, the football manager. So far, so promising. More important, Devereaux himself has all the hallmarks of an ideal candidate. He isn't just living on another planet from the average football manager (no idea about the offside rule, "not comfortable with being aggressive"), but he's got that crucial Faking It factor: the need, deep down, to be saved from his life. We know this because the voice-over tells us that Max has an IQ of 170, was bullied at school, and now lives on his own, goes camping on his own, even plays chess on his own - so it is clear that Max is looking for a chance to change, and we want to watch it happen. This is the big secret of Faking It. At its best, it proves before our very eyes that by stepping out of your box, feeling the fear and trusting in others, you can change the person you are. Guarantees that we'll be in floods of tears by the end.
Max's mentors look like they have the right stuff, too. They are tough but fair, and we are pretty sure that manager Wally Downs will grow to love Max like a son by the end, as they nearly always do. Still, there is a big hill to climb first, no ques-tion: Max is ungainly, unathletic and unassertive; he can't ref a match or handle the locker-room high jinks (as Wally says: "It's just a case of me getting him to change as a bloke, really"). But then we've been here often enough before. We know that there will be sweat and tears, yet, somehow, he will get there in the end. And Max is changing, a bit. When he stands on the touchline for the first time, roaring instructions at his team as if he almost means it, well, it is nearly a tear-pricking moment. Nearly, but not quite.
There's always a moral lesson in your bumper Faking It - whether it's "don't judge a book by its cover" or "never underestimate the kindness of strangers" - but this time we don't get that feel-good result. There is another message in there, though, which is that, without passion, you might as well stay at home. Max is a quick learner, on the technical side, and has just about enough motivation; the problem is, he lacks the ability to engage emotionally with the task and the people around him. He simply doesn't, or can't, care enough and, in the end, the judges see straight through him. All three spot him as a fake (which goes to show that the programme isn't fixed, as some have dared to suggest).
It turns out that the faker's ability to transform is only half the secret of Faking It. The programmes that really work are the ones when mentor and faker grow to love and respect each other, and that relationship is ultimately what drives them to succeed and what gets to us, the viewers. As Wally says when it is all over: "I wanted him to like it more, I wanted him to like the players more. I wanted him to say: 'cor that was good', and I never got that once." He wants to love Max, but it doesn't happen. It's the Kerry McFadden factor again: if you want it enough, and you've got heart, that's what makes a winner.
Shane Watson writes for the Sunday Times
Andrew Billen is away