For the most part, reality shows are stale and predictable. It's always the same thing. A bunch of camera-friendly sociopaths, all starving for attention, are turned loose on one another, the result being the creepy hybrid of a soap opera and a Japanese game show.
Offering a slight twist on this formula is NBC's "The Biggest Loser," in which 16, um, over-sized people are sent off to a ranch. Here, under the guidance of a generic reality hostess and two personal trainers, they're made to do all sorts of stuff, and the person who ultimately loses the most weight receives $250,000. And so, it's the standard reality formula, only with fat people.
The opening flies by in an ecstatic spasm. Gospel-inflected music plays as images of fatties, working hard and earning it, zoom by. Covered in sweat, they pump meaty fists in the air, jubilant in their televised reinvention. It's a sort of mixture of humiliation and inspiration. Humiliration, I'll call it.
The most recent episode commenced with the assembled contestants massed around a wheel, on which was arrayed a bunch of covered, silver platters. Everybody looked kind of sheepish, as if simultaneously delighted and frightened by the temptations that they knew awaited.
Rudy, an immense and likable guy, had a huge, 1,000-calorie slab of cake revealed to him. He smiled like he just caught a glimpse of a naked supermodel, and for reasons of "game strategy" decided to eat the cake and risk the weight gain. Everybody else stood around anxiously watching, wondering what their plate might reveal, (grilled cheese and bacon sandwich!?) while Rudy, rather considerately, ate the cake with a minimum of fuss, although he did unconsciously lick his fingers clean at the end.
And so, in this manner, each person encountered their own demon, until it came to Tracey, the show's only villain. For reasons that only really make sense on Reality TV, she was declared the winner of this competition and awarded the power to reshape the teams in the manner that best served her interests.
Tracey, who really isn't all that large, has nasty, darting eyes and a passive-aggressive insincerity. Her dim face expresses only cartoon exaggerations of feelings and her self-protective rationalizations have PTA bitch written all over them. Everybody hates her, and when she won the competition, a palpable nausea spread out through all the other contestants.
In the compound, we watch as the now-traumatized contestants commiserate. Amanda, the blond princess who never appears for a workout session without full make-up, weeps. She's comforted by Shay, who is also crying. With tears streaming down her face, Shay tries to utter some inspirational words, but her voice is weak and defeated, as if she knew in her heart that they could never conquer the Death Star that was Tracey.
In the face of such melodrama, one might consider sympathizing with Tracey, imagining a vulnerable women buried somewhere deep within her ambition. However this notion is torpedoed when we watch her "video from home," which features her asshole husband.
Surrounded by patriotic kitsch, as the sort of tinkly music you might hear in a movie about golf plays in the background, he weeps, telling his annoying wife that he will only sleep on the sofa when she is gone, because he can only go to bed with her. Lest we think he's some soft Democrat, or something, he then launches into an inspirational spiel in which he commands her to win, reminding her that "pain is temporary, pride is forever!" Tracey, beaming, salutes him like the good, Christian soldier she no doubt is.
But it's not the villains who drive the show. Villains are everywhere. We watch for the transformation of the contestants, or more appropriately, for the emotional and psychological satisfaction they get from their transformation.
Two trainers preside -- Jillian, a wiry and sneering sadist, and Bob, a gay man who's given to shout things like, "There are heroes in this room!" Jillian is in a constant state of aggravation, always pissed off that the Fatties don't want it enough to work hard. Disgusted by their plump whining, she relishes making them puke, while Bob, the good cop, tries to make things fun.
There's always been an inherent comedic appeal in watching overweight people sweat gracelessly through physical activity, and "The Biggest Loser" certainly looks to exploit this opportunity. But hell, as fat as these people might be, they are, for the most part, strong and athletic, bulling through exercise sessions that would kill most people.
One exception to this is Dina, who has some sort of mental block that prevents her from jumping up on an eight-inch high platform. It's utterly ridiculous to watch, as repeatedly, she somehow manages to sabotage something that is so clearly within her physical grasp. Obviously, the point that's being driven home is that for many, weight issues have more to do with the mind than the body.
For the most part, the people on the show are decent, even appealing. They, like all of us, have flaws, and in their case, some of these flaws became manifest in the flesh. As all of us know, it's extraordinarily difficult to impose discipline on ourselves, and we often need some guidance and support from an external force.
"The Biggest Loser" is more than just a cheesy game show (although it is still a cheesy game show): it provides a framework where this guidance and support is made possible. The people on this show, all sharing the same struggle, have bonded. Now, dependent on one another instead of food, they very sincerely want to see their peers succeed, and to succeed with them.
At the end of each show there's a weigh-in, in which the team that has lost the smallest percentage of body weight must eliminate one of their members. Unlike the other reality shows, nobody seems happy to see anybody leave on this show.
Shay, who weighed over 400 pounds when the show started, was crying when she stepped onto the scales to be weighed. She needed to have lost eight pounds or more, or her team would have to eliminate one of its members, and she felt immense pressure as her weight loss was minimal the previous week. When her weight loss was revealed -- a staggering 16 pounds in seven days -- it was as though Shay, her teammates, and even her opponents had just won the Super Bowl. It was actually a lovely moment, and you could see and almost feel a wave of gratification and confidence wash over everybody participating in that moment.
The people on this show are earnest and utterly sincere in their desire to become a newer, better version of themselves, and not even the sleazy conventions of the Reality TV can diminish that.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he's written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.
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