Trials and Transformations: Reflections on Watching The Biggest Loser
June 1st, 2010
I don’t entirely know why I started watching The Biggest Loser this season.
It’s not like I was particularly interested in one of the show’s gimmicks, or that I heard some positive things about the series; in fact, my one clear memory of my first experiences with the show is that I wanted to be able to offer my own perspective on the series to see if it matched with James Poniewozik’s distaste for it. I wasn’t watching because I was interested in the show itself, but rather I was interested in how it was structured, and how it was balancing its various generic elements within its two-hour running time.
However, at a certain point in the process this sort of forensic viewing pattern would have revealed all that I really needed to know: every episode of The Biggest Loser is structured the same way, so if I was only in it to discover how this reality series compared with others I could have stopped watching after a couple of weeks. That I was compelled to keep watching indicates the ways in which the series, perhaps more than any other, pushes you to keep watching until the end in order to witness the transformations, to be able to say that you saw these indiviiduals’ weight loss journeys from beginning to end.
And yet, as much as this may be what kept me watching (beyond the fact that it was recording on the DVR and made for a lazy way to start my Wednesday), it’s also a quality which is largely buried in the mess which is the rest of the show. The decision to extend the series to two hours full-time is smart in that people keep watching and NBC keeps making money, but the decision to draw out each of its moments points out the contradictions inherent to the show’s premise and forces viewers simply interested in the contestants’ progress to sit through a lot of material they have no interest in.
Accordingly, I do know why I won’t be watching The Biggest Loser next season, and why tonight’s premiere of spinoff Losing it with Jillian (10pm on NBC) will be summarily ignored based on its relationship with its big brother.
The central contradiction of The Biggest Loser is that it is a game, a competition wherein individuals fight against other individuals for a spot in the house. These people are competing to stay on the Biggest Loser ranch in order to better their lives, and yet in order to do so they often resort to the kind of reality show bargaining and vote-blocking which we don’t often associated with better lives. It always feels like these efforts to “gameplay” are in opposition to the purpose of the show itself: when one contestant this season, Melissa, came in with a clear mindset on gameplay and strategy above losing weight or becoming more healthy, she was edited as the season’s villain and shown insulting the other players for being so stupid as to think with their hearts over their heads by keeping contestants around who could end up beating them in the end.
The problem for the show is that she’s right, and yet they don’t want to admit that she’s right: for better or for worse, the Biggest Loser is a game which is built on positivity and uplifting personal triumphs and yet which very much depends on strength in numbers and political maneuvering. Because the editors know what makes good drama, you see plenty of that gameplay emerging on a regular basis, as it creates tension which the show can utilize to its advantage (like when Melissa, accused of throwing a weigh-in, lashes back at trainers Bob and Jillian). Sure, those who lose the most weight are eventually those who are able to keep going in the competition, so it’s possible for personal triumphs to outweigh the political side of the game. But by first starting as pairs, then playing as individuals, then being divided into two teams, there are plenty of situations where one person’s triumph is trapped within the confines of a constrictive reality show construct which, frankly, doesn’t seem to be ideally suited to losing weight.
There are likely arguments to be made that the series’ introduction of penalties and disadvantages would only push contestants to work harder, but the fact remains that weight loss of this nature probably works better without temptations and without people feeling the intense stress which comes with potentially leaving the ranch and continuing on this journey on their own. The show wants us to believe that the game isn’t over if you’re eliminated from the ranch, that the $100,000 at-home prize and the lessons you’ve learned will help you continue on this new lifestyle path – this isn’t factually untrue, but it isn’t the ideal situation. This season, one player never spent a single day on the Ranch after being eliminated on the first day (for being unable to complete a stationary bike marathon with her daughter) and then failing to re-enter the competition on two further occasions – she ended up losing weight, but that sort of extreme adversity inspires such intense motivation. For contestants who simply lose out half-way through the season and know they aren’t likely to compete for the At-Home prize, the motivation isn’t as intense, and more importantly it’s something the show can’t really continue: once they leave the show, their narrative disappears until the finale, meaning that their weight loss journey is now less important than those who remain on the Ranch and competing for the prize.
When I sat down to watch the season finale, I realized that this is partly by design: the series works quite well when it gets to surprise us with how much weight people have lost, how contestants have changed since the last time we’ve seen them. The omission of certain contestants from the series narrative makes their weight loss more shocking and their transformations more noteworthy, heightening our response to the finale and our desire to get to the end of this journey. However, if the show’s simplest pleasure is found in its beginning and its end, the show needs to convince us that watching everything in between is worth our time. The show doesn’t just want to be a glorified before and after advertisement: it wants to convince you that these people are worth following, and that their journeys are part of what makes the finale so powerful. And from my experience this is true: the contestants who stayed on the Ranch the longest were those whose transformations felt most potent when we saw how far they had come.
However, the series’ decision to run for two hours each and every week meant that this was not the first time each player’s narrative had come to this particular turning point. Because of the long running time, the show has time to draw out every bit of emotional drama on the Ranch, as Bob and Jillian pull an individual contestant aside and work with them on getting their emotions in check. The idea of weighing-in every week gives you a clear sense of each player’s progress, as they reach personal goals (like crossing the 400/300/200 pound barriers) and come to terms with personal challenges (like O’Neal, who took the steps one at a time in a surprisingly affecting moment). And yet every episode is peppered with these moments, building up one or more individuals into a personal crusade which attempts to capture the transformative power of an entire season within a single episode. These hype-emotional moments are fine every now and then, but every episode seems to rely on them, and during the early days of the competition it feels exploitative; eventually, you get to know these individuals well enough and begin to see enough progress that they ring true, but in the early going it feels like the series taking advantage of some intense emotions to create provocative television.
To my mind, the Biggest Loser needs to earn these narratives, just as these contestants need to earn their new lifestyle. The show starts off in a dangerous position, with a collection of dangerously overweight contestants who want to be able to start new lives. Eventually, the early scenes of the series are given new meaning by the transformations we experience, as the contestants lost a great deal of weight, change their attitudes, and those early emotional experiences and audition tapes become an artifact of their past. However, I can see why so many viewers can’t get past those early episodes, where the show launches them into this new lifestyle with the grace of, well, a competition reality show. And with two hours to fill each and every week, the show never holds back an opportunity to have a contestant tearfully reflect on their life changes or a chance to show someone being overwhelmed in the gym. It’s one thing to expand the weigh-ins to a ludicrous length to create greater suspense, as that is the main competitive element each week; however, the desire to highlight as much emotion as possible in each episode means that each contestant has gone through so many transformations that the final one feels almost anti-climactic.
By the time the series actually gets to the end of its run, it ends up with some really interesting personal stories that are perhaps worth the torture of sitting through the early parts of the season. Daris, Michael and Ashley (the eventual final three) all overcame some substantial personal demons in their battle to lose weight, and all were endearing in a way that the show wants to see from its contestants. Watching Daris run a marathon in four hours just four or five months after being obese was truly inspiring, while Ashley’s changes in self-confidence made her an entirely different person; eventual winner Michael, meanwhile, was the heaviest contestant in the show’s history, so it’s hard to take away from his accomplishment. In the beginning, it’s hard to imagine how The Biggest Loser could be praised for its exploitation of America’s struggles with weight loss, but in the end it’s hard to imagine how anyone could criticize the series for inspiring these transformations. In between, the series is sort of trapped between the two modes, and the conflict between exploitation and transformation, or competition and personal triumphs, comes to the surface, especially when there’s two hours to fill.
It’s why I’m not going anywhere near Losing It with Jillian, a show which promises all of the exaggerated emotional content of The Biggest Loser without any of the time to actually get to know the people involved. There will be no months-long transformation for the people who Jillian helps confront their lifestyle choices, no sense of the long-term goals and purposes that allows the Biggest Loser to transform over each season’s run. Even Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which did similar home visits and personal transformations within its run, did so within a larger program of improving a town’s health. Losing It wants to embrace Jillian Michaels’ ability to yell at people along with her ability to dial it down emotionally, but so concentrated within a single episode of television I think those modes will read even more falsely than they do on The Biggest Loser itself.
In the end, I don’t regret watching The Biggest Loser: when the show reaches a moment of real personal triumph like a weight loss goal being reached or a daughter witnessing her father’s personal strides, it feels like the kind of show that you’re willing to watch to experience the resilience of the human spirit. However, for every one of those moments, there’s a half dozen which aren’t nearly as genuine but which the show treats the same as it would legitimate progress. The show, like some its contestants as they battle their personal demons in an effort to keep off the weight, is its own worst enemy, so focused on creating certain moments that they forget the fact that it’s a long journey. Before they actually earn their high stakes drama, they create it by manipulating the game in its favour, upsetting any balance the show eventually reaches by the time it reaches its conclusion. Perhaps with a one-hour (or even ninety minute) running time the show could cut back some of this false emotion, focusing more on showing us the growth of each contestant through their results rather than through naked displays of emotion turned into “candid” reality show sequences. Or, perhaps, it would only cut back on the parts of the show which built incrementally and focus instead on the exaggeration of small victories into large ones for the sake of creating suspenseful ad breaks.
Only Reveille Productions knows for sure, but I don’t think I’ve got the patience to stick around to find out – I enjoyed some of what I saw here, and can imagine this show being better than it is, but I don’t foresee a subtle touch being part of the series’ future.
- For a show with no voting involvement, it seems strange to suddenly insert America as a democratic force within the final episode: Koli would have won the competition if he had won America’s vote, but his hyper-competitive streak was edited as cockiness by the series, which meant he had no chance of beating young and earnest Daris who seemed wholly good-hearted by comparison. That decision decided who won this competition, so it seems like a mistake to place it in America’s hands (even if I quite liked Daris as a contestant).
- Alison Sweeney doesn’t get to do much as the host, but she is just about perfect for the job: the show isn’t about her, and so she sits back, remains supportive and gets to show some emotion when someone gets particularly great results. The best part of the finale was her sheer joy at seeing O’Neal bound down the stairs, and while she isn’t the most natural host of all time there are moments when you see that she’s as caught up in these contestants’ transformations as the viewers are.
- In terms of repeating the same transformations, the flashforward to where each eliminated contestant is now (and where they want to be for the finale) sort of eliminates some of the suspense, but I see its function: while transformations might seem a long way away on the Ranch (where the contestants are still heavy), it’s a promise that they will eventually transform in a big way.
- One of the most powerful clips the show returned to in its conclusion was Ashley and her mother Sherry sitting in a shared interview in which Ashley asks what happens if she can’t do it, and Sherry answers “but what if you can?” It’s so effective because it is clearly unscripted: there’s no edit, and while the discussion was created by an unseen producer behind the camera it evolved in a way which was dependent on these two individuals.