Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Food, Money, Culture: Why Biggest Loser May Be the Most Important Show on TV

The problem with most reality shows is they seldom reflect actual reality. Personally, I know very few fallen pop stars with plastic surgery addictions, only one or two aspiring international dance teams, and exactly zero moms of 18.

But Biggest Loser isn’t like that. Airing Tuesday nights on NBC, the show focuses on folks with whom we’re intimately familiar: the obese. They’re our moms and dads, our coworkers and cousins, our friends and fellow bloggers. They’re us, and because of this, Biggest Loser is eminently relatable – much moreso than Flavor of Love, anyway.

The show’s premise is simple: take a bunch of heavy people from across the country, see who can lose the most weight, and reward the winner with $250,000. Sounds relatively controversy-proof, right? Not so much.

Somewhat rightfully so, Biggest Loser has vocal, emphatic detractors. Critics claim it promotes an unrealistic image of dieting, doesn’t give contestants the tools to maintain their weight loss, and holds fat people up as freaks.** Lots of participants end up gaining back all the poundage once the show wraps, and the editing leaves out gigantically important details of each Loser’s journey. Plus, Jillian is kind of scary. In my nightmares, she makes Godzilla cry.

Still, it could be the most important show on TV.

Watch an hour of this thing, and you’ll get a pretty good grasp on American eating issues. There are few entertainment products that reflect our collective struggles – with dieting, with exercise, with money, with emotions – so accurately.

Most Biggest Loser contestants can’t cook. They don’t have the time or inclination to exercise. They blow mad cash on fried meals and diabetes medication. They take refuge in eating, lack self confidence, and fear failure. They’re terrified of dooming their children to a life of obesity and social persecution. They know if they don’t change their habits, they’ll die decades too early. Really, it’s a microcosm of our nationwide relationship with food, and it's rarely portrayed as thoroughly and sympathetically.

Beyond the cultural mirror, what further separates Biggest Loser from standard shows is almost everyone (maybe even Joelle) eventually triumphs. Through admittedly intense diet and exercise, contestants are consistently able to achieve vital personal transformations. They learn they’re CAPABLE of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. They CAN overcome their mental roadblocks. Their kids don’t HAVE to follow in their (formerly sizeable) footsteps.

For viewers at home, this is essential. If a Brown dad Ron, a 430-pound 54-year-old with multiple physical problems, can drop 15% of his body weight in seven weeks, anybody can.

What’s more, the cynicism and spectacle that usually accompanies reality TV is largely absent. Sure, there’s manipulation and crying (SO MUCH CRYING), and the before-and-after transformations make for good ratings. (I mean, look at these people.) But at its core, the show is meant to inspire. Contestants both challenge and cheer each other. They have rational discussions and create support systems within the mini-society of the Ranch. Most of ‘em even seem to like each other. For pop culture, it’s refreshing.

Ultimately, with hardly any exceptions (maybe Oprah), there are precious few entertainment products that manage to both educate and encourage. For a population that (like it or not) relies on television for health information, Biggest Loser is as almost as necessary as the AMA. No, Bob shouldn’t replace your doctor. But you get the idea. Give the show a shot, and it just might surprise you.

**Regarding the “freak” criticism, I agree to an extent. BL is exploitative, the same way Extreme Home Makeover is. Universally, the Losers are people in severe situations, and their stories and appearance are meant to merit sympathy, empathy, and maybe even a little revulsion. This season, they brought in Daniel, a sweet-as-pie 19-year-old who weighed almost 500 pounds. You could practically hear, “My god, he’s huge,” “How did he let it get that far?” and “That poor, poor kid” echoing through American living rooms. It’s undoubtedly meant to score viewers, and not quite fair to him. Still, he signed up for it knowing what would happen. It’s an interesting debate.

(Photos courtesy of MSNBC and Diets in Review.)

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::::wifemothermaniac:::: said...

Wow, those before and after pictures are amazing!

Anonymous said...

You're bang on.

Anonymous said...

Nice insights!

As an obese person, though, I don't think the show portrays people as freaks at all. In the past 20 years, I think America has come a long, long way in its acceptance and understanding of obesity, or people of any type.

Marcia said...

I admit it. I am addicted to this show. I have watched every season. I love seeing the transformation.

I am formerly clinically obese (though not obese enough to get on the Biggest Loser these days - I had a BMI of 33). It's so inspiring to see others "get it" and realize that a healthy life is within their grasp.

I do worry about the extremeness of the 6 hrs a day workout. I think a lot of contestants gain the weight back because they can't make the change from 6 hrs a day to 1 hr a day (along with a healthy diet).


Great post! Like Marcia, I must admit that I am addicted to this show. I see all the criticisms and agree with most of them, but despite it all, I can’t help but watch. It seems like there’s at least a little more focus on the fact that the extreme measures taken (6 hours of working out, etc.) aren’t reality. Last season, I remember Bob trying to bonk one contestant (Vicky?) over the head with the notion that she needs to actually confront her issues before going home or it would all come back. And with half the contestants going it alone at home for 30 days this season, we saw the difference in results. One of the girls “only” lost 15 lbs and started to cry – she wound up almost losing the most (she was beat out by one guy, I think). The trainers did seem to stress the difference a controlled environment makes.

So for now, I’ll keep watching.

Ashley said...

I love this show, but I am starting to get irritated by the increasing number of product placements in the show - the brita pitchers/reusable bottles are OK, but do we really need a lecture on cheerios? I also still think that teaching people to chew (chewing gum) to avoid food is a bad idea. If it were me and I was used to chewing all day the first time I didn't have 15 bowls of gum sitting around me I'd start eating food just out of habit.