The sprinters look like they're running into the living room, the swimmers look like they're getting the carpet wet, and the gymnasts practically tumble off the screen.
That's HDTV for you.
NBC is broadcasting hour after hour of Summer Olympics competition in high definition. It's the latest effort to provide popular programming for those with special televisions that pull in these ultrarealistic pictures. This fall, virtually every major network will offer shows in HDTV. Sales of the high-tech rigs are expected to soar.
For viewers, the payoff is a new standard of clarity. But for those whose livelihoods depend on the tube, HDTV is proving that not only is beauty skin deep - so is ugly. The new technology is throwing into sharp relief every blemish, wrinkle and acne scar among the celebrity elite.
Cameron Diaz? "Littered with ... pockmarks," according to TV industry analyst Phillip Swann, who has evaluated the impact of HDTV on a raft of glamorous stars.
Jamie Lee Curtis? "She looks like a guy."
Joan Rivers? "You can almost count the stitch marks from her various facial surgeries."
It's not just women. Michael Douglas, Brad Pitt and the entire Rolling Stones fail the HDTV test, Swann says. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper recently made a joking plea for viewers to resist upgrading to the "merciless" new format: "If not for me, then do it for Andy Rooney."
This would be mere catty fun were it not for the serious side of America's obsession with the superficial. It's hard to tell exactly when extreme makeovers went mainstream, but these days, a slew of ordinary folks are submitting to painful, expensive and sometimes risky procedures, all in the name of appearances.
Every day, brows are being lifted, botox injected, fat redistributed and breasts augmented. It costs a fortune, and the stakes keep rising.
A trade group that sponsored the World Congress on Anti-Aging Medicine in Chicago last weekend predicts its segment of the industry alone will grow to $42 billion by 2006.
Especially for women, a skin-deep arms race is a no-win proposition.
If everybody is obsessed with postponing the ravages of time, the norm shifts. Tomorrow's women in their 50s will look like today's fortysomethings, except with less saved for retirement. We can only guess at the toll in botched nose jobs, eating disorders and rock-bottom self-esteem.
If Britney Spears appears "puffy," what hope do the rest of us have?
In Hollywood, the unforgiving eye of HDTV seems likely to further reduce the opportunity for aging celebrities to retain box-office appeal.
Some will come out ahead, at least for a while, says TV analyst Swann. The new camera loves the youthful Charlize Theron, Anna Kournikova and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Perhaps everyone should heed the warning of Halle Berry, who also looks great on HDTV. "Being thought of as a beautiful woman has spared me nothing in life. No heartache. No trouble," she said recently. "Beauty is essentially meaningless, and it is always transitory."
More transitory in some than others. And soon to be more apparent.