Like most people, whenever I have insomnia, I turn to the TV. Feeling sorry for myself, I’ll stare blankly at whatever happens to be on, which is usually poker, some crappy movie “starring” Eric Roberts or an old episode of one of the billion Star Trek franchises that are floating around. However, a few months ago, I started to turn to TLC. Under the guise of education, The Learning Channel has been trotting out a slew of specials that document the lives of people with, well, for lack of a better expression, freakish conditions.
Recently, I saw a show on the Tree man of Indonesia, who had been sprouting bark-like tissue from his hands and feet. On another late night, I watched a special on children with Progeria, a condition that causes very rapid aging at a young age. However, the shows that really brand TLC are ones like “I Eat 33, 000 Calories a day” or “Half-ton Mom.”
These fat shows will blow your mind.
Watching somebody who appears to be little more than a human head loosely connected to a huge, immobile blob of flesh, we are compelled to wonder, how the hell did this person get to be 1,000 pounds? And so, we marvel in amazement, not so much because of the profound physical challenges that such morbid obesity presents, but because we’re driven to discover what sort of psychological make-up informs somebody to whom such a thing could happen.
One of the most compelling specials TLC has trotted out is Half-Ton Teen, which features Billy Robbins, who at the age of 19 weighed somewhere in the vicinity of 800 pounds. Living in a cramped bungalow outside of Houston, Billy is pretty much confined to a massive lounge chair, where he spends his days playing video games, watching shitty movies and eating all the junk food his mother serves to him. Infantilized and enabled by this disturbed woman, Billy realizes every conceivable stereotype of the Ugly American.
We hear Billy’s thin and characterless voice, one that begs for charity, call out from the cell of his bedroom. He asks his mother, who is busy in the kitchen preparing some of the 33, 000 calories that he eats a day, just how much mustard he wants on his burger. Later, we see his mother, now in Blockbuster, scurrying from aisle to aisle, trying to find exactly what her son wants. Their relationship is a world of messed-up, and if that wasn’t sufficient cause for pity, we learn that his mother lost a baby before Billy was born, and ever since, has been a tornado of neurotic indulgence to her surviving son.
Billy, who is headed for an early grave, has developed an absolutely toxic personality. He has no friends—other than his damaged mother—and no evident will. The only force in his life is his mother, and Billy seems to have no interior life whatsoever. It’s terribly sad, and terribly unattractive, and as we watch Billy reluctantly enter a medical clinic, it’s obvious that it will be an incredibly difficult and gargantuan task for these people to find a healthy balance in the lives that they so ruinously share.
Another unforgettable special is 650-Lb Virgin. This entry in the fat franchise tries to fob itself off as a success story, as when we meet David Smith— the 32 year-old subject of the show—he’s already lost over 400 pounds and been transformed into a hunky personal trainer.
Although clearly attractive, there’s an oddly artificial look to him, like he’s the idea of a person, rather than a person himself. He speaks in a slow and spacey way, as if words come with great difficulty. He seems medicated, or in some regard impaired, and as we come to know him through the show, we can see that although his exterior looks pretty good, the interior is still a mess.
Although we never get a clear picture of what forces helped to shape him, we do hear from David that he was molested as a boy and that his mother passed away from cancer when he was at a particularly vulnerable age. Bullied and teased growing up, he dropped out of high school at 17.
Standing in the desert, the transformed David tells us how he contemplated suicide when he was younger. He wanted to immolate himself so that nothing remained of him in this world but his screams. To illustrate this, he kneeled down on the ground and opened his mouth, as if to simulate his last, tormented howls. It was creepy.
At any rate, the show zips over such moments, employing them as tearfully emotive accents rather than surreal signs of unresolved psychological distress.
Presiding over the reformulated David Smith is a little ball of fitness energy named Chris Powell. Powell is credited with Smith’s transformation, and is eager to market the success of this metamorphosis and help his “best friend” move from “dud to stud.” Perhaps I’m cynical, but this relationship seemed kind of exploitive, with David lumbering around like Frankenstein’s monster, while Powell reaped whatever monetary benefits he could for his creation.
The show is a hodgepodge of reality genres, mashing inspirational weight loss stories with dating adventures. David goes on three dates, and he’s hopeless, of course, but not in a charming and awkward way that makes you want to hug him. No, he just seemed entirely disconnected, as if he had no understanding of what another person might be. Like a psychopath. Not surprisingly, no love connection was established.
David not only lost 400 pounds, but also had a multitude of cosmetic surgeries done to his face and body.
Whomever David Smith was, he was replaced by a new version, one whose appearance had been sculpted to fit into the mainstream. Like in the quasi-pornographic reality show, “The Swan,” David received a new body in the hopes that he would acquire a new life. It’s difficult in North America, living amidst a culture of mass consumption, where we’re taught that bigger is better, to curb our appetites. We all want fancy cars and extra large steaks. We all want to find love. But there’s no escaping the self, and whatever problems are contained within us, are projected out into the world, and no amount of weight loss, cosmetic surgery or designer labels, is going to change 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.