How Bad Can It Be? FLASHBACK: “The Biggest Loser Families”

Written by How Bad Can It Be?, Television

Jack Feerick has the deadline blues this week, leading him to publish his first flashback column — a previously unpublished look at “The Biggest Loser.”

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A Note on This Week’s Column: I’ve been sidelined by the Dreaded Deadline Doom this week, so there’s no new column, strictly speaking. But as a special treat — all right, to fill the gap in the schedule — I’m presenting here, for the first time, the very first How Bad Can It Be? ever written.

Jeff Giles first approached me about doing a column about a year ago — November 2008. We kicked around some concepts, knocking the premise into shape. To help me get a grip on it, I wrote a bunch of sample columns, including this one, about the then-current season of NBC’s The Biggest Loser. The start date for the column was eventually pushed back to January 2009, leaving this piece basically unpublishable — hopelessly past its sell-by date. And so it has sat on my hard drive until now. Hope you enjoy this peek behind the curtain — the Secret Origin of HBCIB?, if you will.

As this was to have been the inaugural column, it begins with a statement of purpose — one I find worth revisiting now and then…

I will not cop to charges of snobbery; I find my pop-culture thrills wherever I can. I freely admit, though, that I’m selective. Any consumer of media has to be, I think. There are only so many hours in a day, and so much to fill them with. It’s not so much that I’m actively avoiding anything; it’s just that there’s so much good stuff out there that I’ve not yet experienced — Infinite Jest, “Trout Mask Replica,” Kurosawa’s Rashomon — that I’ve got to be choosy with the little time I have above ground. And because I write about media from the perspective of an enthusiast, rather than a critic, I’m not obliged to watch or read and listen to anything in which I would otherwise have no interest.

In practice, that means gravitating towards a comfort zone. It’s a big zone, as these things go — I’m a pretty well-rounded guy — but in the great spectrum of mass media, it’s a relatively narrow bandwidth. Now, I can and do often enjoy myself when I venture out of that zone; but I always do so with mingled feelings of hope and dread. Part of me wonders, “Am I going to hate myself for watching this? Will I wish I could have this hour back?” And another part of me thinks, “Hey, you never know. This could be a keeper. And really, after all — how bad can it be?”

This column aims to answer that question.

So you can see why it was with some fear and trembling that I tuned in the new season of The Biggest Loser (Tuesdays, NBC). The show is basically a Survivor-style competition; each season, a group of morbidly obese contestants is whisked off to a ludicrously lavish “ranch,” where they are divided into two teams. Each team is assigned a personal trainer, and through a regime of diet and exercise they work to trim down. Each week, there’s a weigh-in, and one contestant is eliminated. The eventual winner — the “biggest loser” — is the contestant who loses the highest percentage of body weight over the course of the program, and he or she is rewarded, as is usual, with a cash prize and an assortment of consumer goods. So far, so Mark Burnett.

What makes The Biggest Loser so car-crash fascinating is the simmering brew of emotional issues and class politics bubbling under the surface. These people aren’t just fame-whores, or even contestants playing a game — they are sick people who are clutching for a chance to get well. Received wisdom holds that you can never be too rich or too thin, and The Biggest Loser promises to deliver on both aspirations — but thinness itself is rapidly becoming a class aspiration. As Greg Critser points out in his book Fat Land (a critical text for understanding the obesity crisis), government subsidies and agribusiness consolidations have overturned historical precedent; in 21st Century America, a diet of pre-prepared, calorie-dense foods is actually cheaper and more readily-available than one of traditional staples. And so obesity becomes a socio-economic issue, with the poor gorging on sweetmeats that would astonish Henry VIII, while the rich pay big money to eat like peasants.

The emotional aspects are even gnarlier. This season, The Biggest Loser has rejiggered its formula; instead of individual contestants, we get overweight family units. The two starting teams consist of four husband-wife couples versus four parent-child pairs. I’m having a hard time imagining this is going to end well for any of them. One fat person on his own is a medical issue; two fat people in a family relationship are a stew of guilt, recrimination, and enablement. Put ‘em in a high-pressure environment, under the ever-watchful eye of the camera — that’s a recipe for entertaining television! (Or possibly manslaughter.)

Struggling with all this, I sit down to watch, and we meet the trainers and the families, most of whom have been supplied, through the magic of editing, with some sort of relatable backstory. Trainer Bob is working with the couples; he looks a little like the guy from The Soup, but with a three-day beard. Of the two younger couples, the Orange team are relative newlyweds who want to get their weight under control before they start having kids, while the Brown team seem mostly just to want to win the game; they’re clearly being set up as the villains. The Red team is a middle-aged couple who’ve left their three kids — including an autistic eight-year old — in the care of relatives, while they ship off to the fat farm. Somehow, I’m not as sympathetic towards them as I think I’m supposed to be. Trainer Bob seems an amiable doofus, like Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading, until he starts snarling at his charges and calling them “bitch” while demanding push-ups in psychotic-gym-teacher fashion.

The parent-child teams are in the care of trainer Jillian. She’s got father-son cab drivers who come on like bit players from Gone Baby Gone; two sets of miserable twentysomething doormat daughters stuck living with their miserable overbearing moms; and a weepy girl who idolizes her father, a cop, who is so debilitatingly huge that he requires an oxygen tank about five minutes into the episode. Jillian is sexy ugly in a way vaguely reminiscent of Sandra Bernhard, and shows her deep emotional attachment to her team by screaming insults at them and smacking them upside the head.

The workout segments are the cheap thrill of the show; we get the sadistic spectacle of a toned, sharp-tongued quasi-dominatrix tormenting a pack of fatsos — for their own good! The rest of it, though, seems constructed primarily as a cross-marketing platform. We get a few perfunctory cooking tips, this week featuring chef Rocco DiSpirito, who of course has a TV show of his own; he briefly addresses the idea that healthy food must perforce be expensive, a throwaway moment that is as close as the show ever comes to addressing the class issues of obesity. And there’s relentless shilling for sponsor products, done with a blatancy not seen since the early days of TV, when Jack Benny would interrupt his own show to light up a Lucky.

The thing is, the damn show is two hours long, and even with the slack pacing, there’s a lot of time to fill and a lot of fake tension to build. And so the contestants are roped into idiotically contrived side bets and games. These segments are hosted by soap opera actress Alison Sweeney, smirking as she puts the teams through activities of dubious therapeutic value and questionable reward.

This week there’s a degrading debacle involving huge, color-coded Slip ‘n’ Slides, with the prize being a phone call home; for people struggling with a health issue related to their family dynamics, you can see where that may be counterproductive. The winner is the wife on the Orange team — that’s the couple getting ready to start a family, remember — and when she breaks down in tears while talking to her father, it’s hard not to imagine an unwholesome backstory. (But then, I have a vivid imagination.)

Then it’s back to more workouts, more yelling, more close-ups of sweaty fat people. My queasiness about The Biggest Loser, I think, reflects my ambivalence about the morbidly obese in general — an ambivalence heightened by the fact that I’m a big fat slob myself. But while I could surely stand to drop fifty pounds or so, I can still manage a five-mile hike without breathing hard, to say nothing of getting around the grocery store unaided. When I see folks at the market, too fat for the basic function of walking, tooling around in their electric carts, the thought occurs unbidden: You’ve crippled yourself, and it didn’t have to be like this. No one did this to you — you did it to yourself. In much the same way, you’re rooting for the contestants on The Biggest Loser, but watching them moan and perspire and weep, you can’t help thinking that, y’know, they brought this all on themselves.

But enough uncomfortable reflection: It’s off to the weigh-in, padded out over three (!) commercial breaks with fish-faced reaction shots and booming tympani. I’m unprepared for how much math is involved in this show. Immunity and the possibility of elimination are calculated on the total weight lost per team versus total starting weight; there’s also an over-under on the side wager, which automatically puts that team up for elimination. I wish I had a slide rule at this point. In the end, a bunch of people don’t do so good. Weepy Girl and Officer Porky have made a foolish wager early on, and lose badly; when all is said and done, though, the survivors vote to send the Car Talk guys home. Their reaction (paraphrased): “Meh, fuckit.” My reaction: roughly the same.

So how bad is it? Pretty bad. The ugly emotional explosions never arrive, which is a pity; they would have been a distraction from the deep and uncomfortable contradictions at the heart of the show. On the one hand, it The Biggest Loser Families wants to be empowering and heartwarming; on the other, it wants to serve up the red meat of entertainment — a suspenseful game, colorful challenges, and an endlessly-replayed clip of an old fat man falling off a treadmill.

And so the show constantly undercuts itself. Moments of naked calculation and strategizing — like the Brown team throwing a game on purpose because they “don’t want to be seen as a threat” — bounce up against tears and hugs played out against soaring strings; but the pathos ultimately feels unearned. When the Red team calls home and their autistic son — who seldom expresses emotion — tells them he loves and misses them, it actually makes them seem less sympathetic; after all, the reason they’re separated from him in the first place is because they’re off chasing cash prizes and a new RV.

Again and again, the games aspect is at odds with the goal of actually getting well — beginning with the fact that the players who are losing weight most slowly, who obviously would benefit most from staying in the program, are the very ones who get booted out. Jillian gets a lot of great reaction shots, looking convincingly disgusted at the way the producers contrive to set the contestants at each other’s throats; I think I know how she feels. There’s an ugly cynicism at the heart of The Biggest Loser franchise, in how it tries to have it both ways — purporting to help its contestants while simultaneously inviting the viewers at home to laugh at the fatties.

Bottom line: Watch at your own risk. It’s enjoyable enough, in a train-wreck kind of way, but if you’ve got a single spark of decency in your soul, you’ll hate yourself in the morning.

If you haven’t got a single spark of decency in your soul, of course, you can probably get your own development deal with NBC, if you hurry.