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.)


Post a Comment

Related Post