Friday, September 25, 2009

The Biggest Loser?

I'm not a fan of reality shows in general, and I have studiously avoided watching even a minute of "The Biggest Loser." Since beginning my little experiment here, I saw an ad for the new season and in a moment of weakness added it to the TiVo season pass list. I thought it might be inspirational, I guess.

I'm not sure if I was right. The contestants, most of them, I adore and identify with so strongly. These are heavy people, and their stories feel real and genuine to me - the woman who lost her husband and children in a car accident, that she even gets out of bed in the face of that pain, never mind deciding to go on TV and lose weight in front of millions of people, that is a powerful reminder that no matter what, you have to go on and make good decisions for yourself. The 475 pound woman, who survived a very traumatic and difficult childhood to go on and get herself through college and into grad school for her M.S.W., who speaks from the heart about her anger and shame at having let her life slip into this abyss, I feel her anger, I understand it. The young man who's been through the show once, lost 125 lbs and come back to keep going, his energy and determination are in fact, inspiring, a reminder that you can build the ladder out of this hole, one rung at a time, and slowly find your way back above ground. Each of these people has a story, and I hear and acknowledge them and their power - their successes lift me, too; their pain as they share it reminds me that we are all brothers and sisters in this effort and gives me a place to put my pain, to see it in perspective.

But the reality show tropes intrude, the hard sell for sponsors, the strangely robotic trainer lady and her hard-eyed disgust for the people she's trying to help, the "look what you've done now" tone of the oily doctor telling the young pastor that he unknowingly does have Type II diabetes, the false exhortations of the show being everyone's last chance at a normal life, the unnecessary obstacles put in place by the shows designers that seem designed to set the contestants against each other and tear at each other's failings instead of supporting their successes, these things and all the other things the producers do to make it a "reality" show instead of the incredibly powerful story it already is, they undercut and erode the true capability of a show like this to really connect and inspire - that it does at all is in spite of this artifice, not because of it.

I'm watching the second episode as I write this, and the hard sell for the branded products and affiliated organizations is still as forced and awkward as before. The opportunities to actually provide information are edited and made into ellipses. But the people still have a lot of power in them, and I'm still watching. I guess that's your answer there.

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