(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Zack Handlen looks at NBC's number one rated program, The Biggest Loser. Next week, Todd VanDerWerff takes a look at all three hours of TV's number one rated show, Dancing With The Stars.)
"It's the impossible dream." -Frado
No one is happy about the way they look. Sometimes, you're hefty because, hey, that's just how you're made, and sometimes, you're hefty because cramming food feels better than thinking about how ugly you probably are. (Amazingly, it is possible to do both at once, but that never slowed anyone down.) My two closest college friends had serious eating disorders, far more serious than mine ever was, and I'd say most of the women I've known in my life have struggled with self-esteem and body image issues. It's terrifying, because nobody really talks about it in the right way. It's always "miracle diet" and "exercise regimen," and buried under all that is, "Why are you so fucking fat? You better stop being so fucking fat right now. But in the meantime, if you're feeling blue, how about some ice cream?"
Our cultural relationship with food isn't healthy, and the constant cries of "Obesity epidemic!" aren't doing anything to make it healthier. I have a theory (which I'm sure no one has ever thought of before) about how it's this complicated cycle based around consumer culture—the best way to market something is to create a need, and the best way to create a need is to make your target audience feel crummy, and the easiest way to make people feel crummy is to make them feel like they aren't attractive enough. So everybody (especially women) walks around thinking they aren't nearly as perfect as they need to be, and when you feel bad, hey, who doesn't want to buy crap? Especially junk food that will provide that brief rush of greasy satisfaction, to be followed by the hours of shame for indulging, and then it's time for more junk food because, God, you are such a horrible person, right? You were supposed to be so perfect, and here you are, finishing off your second bag of Flipz Chocolate Covered Pretzels tonight. As with most of my cultural opinions, this notion is elegant but painfully naive—but if ever "painfully naive" belonged in a review, it's in a write-up of The Biggest Loser. Painfully naive, artlessly manipulative, and deeply schizophrenic, this is a show that speaks to that dream of change in all of us, by having a bunch of fat people stand on one foot over a pool.
I've never watched a full episode of reality television before, but I've seen my fair share of clips. I was prepared for the desperately manipulative editing, the constant music cues, the manufactured drama, the recycled footage. I was prepared for people saying ridiculous things in deeply earnest tones, as though, by mortgaging their self-respect and time, they had somehow found the key to spiritual rebirth and enlightenment. (Frado, again: "The Biggest Loser journey is a culmination of a lot of things. It's mental. It's physical. It's emotional. That's what life is, right? So … Biggest Loser's life.") But I wasn't ready for how numbing it all becomes early in and how bizarrely easy it is to watch. This is TV that asks nothing of you and, despite the stream of advice ads and inspirational quotes, gives nothing in return. There's some drama in all the sweat and the yelling and the endless, endless crying, but in the whole two hour episode, maybe about five minutes had actual change in it. The rest was just repeating those same audience pleasing buttons. Patrick wants to impress his family, and he's doing this for his family and himself. Frado is doing this for his family and himself. Elizabeth has been "coasting," so she gets yelled at for a while and then has to hit the stepmaster. Ada has a painful past.
Okay, I'm already getting overly dismissive, and that's not the intent of these columns. But it's all so bizarre. Take Ada: Midway through the first hour, everybody gets video messages from their families on the outside. Everybody except Ada. Bob, the trainer, takes Ada outside to tell her the horrible news (I joke, but actually, that would be humiliating; except, since this is a reality show, and every humiliation translates into more screen-time, it's hard to feel that bad for her) and tries to encourage her to, I dunno, confess how miserable she is. Loser traffics in so much overwrought sincerity that its easy to get caught up in the moment, especially since it's all moments, but there's a fascinating duality going on here. Bob sounds honest in his concern, and I think on one level he is, but there's also the fact that the worse Ada reacts, the better the show.
Everything said here by everyone involved has that level of duality. Which is true of all reality shows, of course, but what makes it so relevant on Loser is that this is supposedly a show about people changing their lives, becoming their ideal (i.e., "thin") selves, and each interview they give allows them a chance to construct a new narrative for themselves. Contestant after contestant enthusiastically talks about giving their all and how important this is to them, how they've opened their eyes and found meaning and purpose, and while most of it's sort of dopey, self-help book stuff, there's something sweet about their determination. Just like there's something moving in how they all band together to make Ada a video to replace the one her family didn't send, in which they talk about how much they care about her.
And yet, this is a competition. At the end of the (interminable) two hours, there's a weigh in and a vote off, and somebody goes home. No one here is exactly mercenary in their behavior, but it undercuts all the platitudes when you realize that what they're all really saying is, "I will love you and support you until the exact moment you get in my way." Everyone's supportive, but everyone still wants to win, which makes all the positive-messaging Loser shoves down its audience's throats hard to swallow. We can pretend this is all about believing in yourself, doing your best, will-power, etc., but it comes down to the numbers in the end, the brutal, inescapable digits that translate a week's experience into the harshest, most unforgiving of terms. Doesn't matter that some people get healthy at different rates; doesn't matter that one person's three pound loss is another's ten pound drop. The trainers (Bob and Jillian, who apparently has her own series?) do the tough love thing, and it's like there's this lesson we're all supposed to be learning, except the lesson doesn't make any sense because it doesn't actually exist.
I'm sure someone will lose a surprising amount of weight by the end of the season, and I'll admit to being curious as to how they'll look. (The freak-show-but-in-a-nice-way feel is another pull for the show.) But I don't buy for a second that any of this is really going to change anyone's life, and I'd be surprised if the pounds stay off for good. I don't like reality television, although having watched a full episode of this (which people keep insisting is one of the worst of the lot), I understand why people find it so appealing. I think I prefer the honesty of the lies in fiction. The Biggest Loser wants us to believe in the power of hope, while reminding us we could all stand to lose a few pounds, and letting us look at fat people who make us feel thin, without feeling like we're exploiting anyone. There was an ad for engagement rings near the end, and you notice how skinny all those soon-to-be-engaged couples were? You could be like them, if you really wanted it bad enough.
- Jessica went home tonight. She wants to do work reforming school nutrition now.
- "I'm sorry to tell you, you are not the Biggest Loser."
- Apparently, not everyone on this show goes home happy.
- In the I'm A Horrible Person Category, this line (and the flat, numb way Ada delivered it) cracked me up: "Pools make me nervous, because when I was three, I was in a kiddie pool, and my younger brother had drowned. That incident has haunted me."