Wednesday, November 4, 2009

#58 - Fat TV

It was the Decade when...

It got tubby on the tube.

America is fat. Television has a lot to do with that. The most sedentary of activities, near synonymous with lethargy and laziness, watching television is the opposite of working out. A couch potato is more likely to consume a six pack than have one. No surprise then that television producers finally started creating programming starring its target demographic: fat people.

Just this year, two of the more salacious entries into the genre premiered: the dance-a-thon cum weight-watchers meeting titled, unsubtly, Dance Your Ass Off, and an otherwise by-the-books dating show for people with More To Love. The former has as its appeal not only the inspiring stories of heavy people losing weight in a creative and fun fashion but also the baser thrills of watching big 'ol folk shake their groove thing, making the tutu clad hippopotami in Fantasia look like Rudolf Nureyev. More to Love gets its purchase from the (non-)novelty of watching every reality dating show cliche being performed by porkers. Food/sex innuendos are surfeit. Other shows with Zaftig casts have been around longer. Celebrity Fit Club stuck around a few seasons but proved less a dieting show than a platform for
strained attempts at regaining former fame in the most obnoxious ways imaginable (Dustin Diamond I'm looking at you!) or drug-induced celebrity meltdowns (Jeff Conaway!). All these shows came after one program in particular proved that, as a ratings niche, fat was the new gay.

A freak show posing as a game show while portending to human drama,
The Biggest Loser was Fat TV's breakthrough hit. A weight loss competition program, the format was simple: lose as much weight as you can every single week of the competition. If the poundage should stick to you longer than your competitors you'll be sent back to your Lay-Z-Boy, eating Doritos in front of the boob-toob in no time. The first episode of the season is a smorgasbord of shame. Unafraid to indulge the audience's appetite for humiliation, the contestants are led (as they shall be every week) to the cattle-size scale while wearing the skimpiest of outfits legal on network television (the men are, grotesquely, topless), serving to each viewer an opportunity to gorge their eyes on the bloated and corpulent flesh center stage. Near nude, wholly unattractive and standing before millions, the person suffering this indignity either winces at the number displayed next to her or he'll (and it's almost always the men who have this reaction) mockingly smile, shrug and laugh in a sad attempt to defuse the horror of the moment with a gesture of comic acceptance, as if to say: Yep, America...I'm a big boy! Here - go ahead and stare. Is this a penance for one's gluttonous sins, or will people simply do anything to get on television?

Scaling uphill from the exploitative depths of the season opener, The Biggest Loser proceeds to pit half the cast against the other, assigning each team a hard-assed but ultimately empathetic trainer who whips their fat-asses into shape. As the show grinds on, expect reality TV-cliches in abundance. Shallow biographical backstories and tearful farewells are par for the course. There are also silly "challenges" every week in which these roly polys are filmed running, cycling, dancing, kayaking etc., displaying all the ease of a bear on roller skates. Seeing a 300lb man traverse a CIA-trainee level obstacle course ought to be enjoyable for neither participant nor viewer. As the lbs fall away and butterflies emerge from their former pupa-like phenotypes, The Biggest Loser asks its audience to embrace and love and root for the same individuals who only weeks before they, admittedly or not, stared at in embarrassment and self-satisfaction. This is having your cake and eating too, even if watching the show kills your appetite.

The Biggest Loser, for all its unscrupulousness, is nonetheless a show that knows and admits what it is: a slickly produced mainstream reality TV program which has the twist of being about fat people. The audience knows it, the contestants know it and the critics know it. If the show trades on the currency of pain and shame at first blush, the stories usually cash out with a happy ending, the much-slimmer contestant singing the praises of the show and the self-transformation it facilitated. The Biggest Loser at least breaks even ethically. For sheer exploitative audacity nothing can compare to the clinical, faux-journalistic basic cable specials about morbidly obese patients. Inside the Brookhaven Obesity Clinic, The 650lbs Virgin, World's Heaviest Man - just turn on TLC any night of the week and you're likely to see footage of a person being forklifted out of their house. The insidiousness resides in the patina of professionalism and solemnity that these "documentaries" project. Make no mistake, these programs exist to parade the freaks. When channel surfing late at night it's hard not to stop on a show called World's Heaviest Man Gets Married. I have been ensnared more than once. By filming the story as if it were Frontline expose, the producers hope to assuage the obvious guilt that should attend such gawkery. I would prefer the freak show at Coney Island; the carnival barker is more honest.

You AUGHT to remember...

1 comment:

  1. As an editor on Biggest Loser I have to say, you've pretty much nailed it. We do try to bring out the psychological issues that perhaps have led to a contestant's obesity and that's helpful, but, yes, people will do anything to get on TV. Surely you remember the Biggest Loser slip n' slide challenge: