Wonder of wonders . . . miracle of miracles . . . Last night I was actually parked in front of the TV for a few minutes with Kathy, watching “The Biggest Loser.” And as we watched the show, I got to thinking about my rather complicated opinion about Reality TV. If someone thrust a microphone into my face and asked me what I think of reality t.v. shows, my knee jerk reply would be “I despise them. They’re the worst thing to happen to human civilization since the Bubonic Plague.” (or words to that effect.) In fact, I really don’t despise all of them as much as all that. . . only a few shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Real Housewives” that I think are shockingly demeaning and inches away from being Pure Evil.
Most reality shows, however, are a much more mixed bag than that – well-intentioned, with tons of potential, borne of a creative vision, executed with polish, and rather entertaining (I’m coming to better appreciate shows like American Idol, even if they still drive me crazy) – but not what they could and should be. One thing – and I’m certainly not the first person to say this – is that so much Reality TV doesn’t really capture true reality at all. It tends not to even live up to the term “Unscripted” which some people prefer. It is highly calculated- more manipulative than the goopiest episode of “Little House on the Prairie”- and rather than capturing regular people in all their complexity and contradictions, it so often portrays people as simple cardboard cutouts. Even “The Amazing Race,” which most critics regard as the blue ribbon standard of reality t.v., is disconcertingly fond of the labels it assigns to each pair of contestants. And these shows are so much more about “TV” than they are about “life.” I would love for Reality TV to trust itself and its material and not be so frantic to build suspense or create scenarios fraught with seething tension and mean-spirited competitiveness. Is it really impossible to create compelling television without all that stuff?
Which brings me to “The Biggest Loser,” which is a show that is such an intriguing and frustrating mixed bag – good intentions undermined by a need to create Good TV. As someone who recently lost a fair amount of weight and who feels so much better physically as a result, I applaud the show for wanting to help morbidly obese people shed weight and find better health and better happiness. What I find a bit appalling is that the show ties that laudable goal – helping people with losing weight – with the rather heartless practice of having contestants voted off of the program – and often for reasons that defy simple explanation. I am also not all that impressed with the show’s focus on weight loss to the exclusion of other kinds of improvement. Yes, some attention is given to things like improved stamina, stronger muscle tone, etc. – but in the end the show seems very focused on those weight loss numbers much more than anything else. And when they step out on that stage and on to that scale, under the glare of the spotlight, I can only imagine how hard that would be. (Given a choice, I would probably prefer the Roman Coliseum and some ravenous lions to having to take off my shirt and stand in front of television cameras as my weight was shown on a screen behind me. Just the thought of it gives me the shivers.)
But what makes me especially crazy is how the contestants are relentlessly badgered by the two trainers, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels. Perhaps I am too sheltered, but I’m pretty sure that there are other ways to get the best out of people besides screaming at them like they have the feelings of a fungus. When I’m on the treadmill at Razor Sharp, I see personal training going on all the time and have never seen the slightest hint of what happens on Biggest Loser. I’m sure there’s a special challenge in working with people who are so seriously overweight and for whom this undertaking is so taxing and who would be prone to quick discouragement. But the screaming that occurs seems like it makes more sense as Exciting T.V. than as effective strategy. What makes me the most frustrated about that is that it seems borne out of a one-size fits all attitude that what all overweight people need more than anything is someone screaming in their face for them to work harder. What I wouldn’t give to have Jillian Michaels in a practice room at Carthage, sitting at a piano, drilling her in scales and berating her at the first sign of defeat and discouragement. I would LOVE to have her on the receiving end of what she dishes out in an endeavor which was as hard for her as pumping iron is for these contestants. That would be sweet.
By the way, I reserved my most intense dismay and frustration last night for the hotshot hairdresser who was brought in as part of an extensive makeover of the final fice contestants. She is evidently featured on some other reality show that I’ve never seen because the contestants were delighted when she stepped out of the limousine, but she had this weird alien look about her, as though her skull might split down the middle and a hundred fire-spewing worms might come crawling out. She is scary-looking! And as far as I can tell, pretty mean. And when she was absolutely insistent that one of the contestants shave off his beard – completely disregarding his polite but earnest request to the contrary – I couldn’t help but yell at the screen “YOU ARE SUCH A RHYMES WITH ITCH! ! !” There are some words that I just don’t say, and you-know- what is one of them – but boy, this show makes me think it more than any other show on television.
In the end, a lot of people are losing a lot of weight, which is what matters most – and there have already been many moving moments, inspirational moments, heart-rending moments – but surely there’s a way to achieve that without all of the garbage thrown in to create “Good T.V.” – which is maybe the worst misnomer of them all.
pictured above: the aforementioned Jillian “working with” one of the contestants on The Biggest Loser.