Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Show That Makes You Feel Like Its Title For Ever, Ever Watching It. (But Maybe It Shouldn't...?)

There are many things about The Biggest Loser that are evil.

1) The relentless product placement. Which is all the more excruciating because they refuse to acknowledge it, but rather insist, repeatedly, that these kinds of detailed, brand-specific gushes come up naturally in the everyday. For example—in the downtime not filled with sweating & grunting & the nasal barking of Jillian, Horse-faced Weightloss Messiah—a typical conversation might sound something like this:
"What are you making, Stephanie?"
"A Yoplait smoothie."
"You mean the great pre-workout snack with only 220 calories & a whole serving of fruit?"
"You bet!"
"Great choice, Stephanie! See how much you're learning?"
I mean, you almost have to respect them for so intensely taking advantage of the unique opportunity this show presents: what better moment to hock a specific product than while educating your viewer on "how to change their life" with the "Science of Weightloss"? (A science, in case you didn't know, in which Jillian, Ever-Lipglossed Treadmill Goblin, & her partner, Bob of the Exceedingly Bizarre Haircut, are leading experts.) This barrage of products is even more potent than, say, L'Oréal's continued chokehold on Project Runway—because while you can see for yourself that there are about a million make-ups that look only slightly different (& are cheaper) in the drugstore aisle, when it comes to food, there are unforeseen consequences; landmines abound, & it becomes increasingly clear that you're a fuck-up who requires handholding from Jillian & Bob, the Sinewy, Megaphonic Dream Team from Orwellian Hell.

2) The scare tactics. There is a resident doctor on the show (whose presence fills me with such blind rage that I haven't quite caught his name, but who, with only slight modification, would be a great live-action version of the Family Guy pedophile) who is apparently paid in proportion to how much lasting psychological damage he is able to cause. "YOU ARE KILLING YOURSELVES!" he shouts, with sardonic glee, at the "very, very sick" people assembled before him. & it's true: left unmanaged, obesity (especially when it's morbid) is wildly unhealthy & can lead to any number of serious problems. However, I would like you to take a poll of everyone in the United States with basic consciousness & language abilities, & ask them if it's healthy to be obese. Accounting, of course, for all of the ironic submissions from census-skipping hipsters, I would imagine that maybe 2% say yes. If you limit the poll to people who applied to be on this show—even people who thought about applying—it would be zero. Not one. Because this very point is something you have to understand in order to consider humiliating yourself on national TV. So, is this really a lesson worth re-learning? & must these poor people learn it in a way that makes them all weep for their wasted lives & immediately start drafting wills?

For example, when consulting one contestant, the arrestingly beautiful (no, really) 27-year-old Ashley, he first shows her
some bizarre HP marketing ploy
a cutting-edge medical tool called an "Inner Age Calculator," which scientifically proves to her, by use of a bar graph, that she is actually 57. Or, in his words: "YOU'VE WASTED 30 YEARS OF YOUR LIFE. JUST THROWN THEM AWAY. & YOU CAN NEVER. GET. THEM. BACK. & WHAT'S WORSE"—he adds, exasperated, as if telling his teenage daughter the consequences of not cleaning her room—"YOU NOW HAVE DIABETES." Really, his tone invites a "WAY TO GO, BITCH"—as she sits in tears, having just been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening disease.

But this is only one of his delightful contributions to the show. He also sets up little illustrative medical-fun experiments—like making the contestants watch videos of their families sobbing over that kind of news. Or, to really shake things up, making them watch as someone (read: Jillian, Madame Subtle-as-Fuschia-Spanx) acts mortified at the very thought of eating the food they would normally eat (read: "GOD, you would ACTUALLY EAT THIS?! This is DISGUSTING," before taking one bite, spitting into a trash can, & ending with perhaps the most-used plaintive grunt in her limited arsenal, "HOW DID YOU LET YOURSELVES GET TO THIS POINT?!??"). I mean, wow, could you get more medically relevant? Thanks, Dr. Pedophile!

3) The ogling. This is actually by far my biggest problem with this show, but I've saved it for the end, lest my vitriol scorch too grandly & make my other points (which are also pretty icky, dare I say) seem insignificant. For a long while, I boycotted even the thought of this show because I knew, could sense it in my bones, that this was going to turn into Sideshow Attraction Programming—like Maury Povich, but with recurring characters.

"Step right up!" NBC shouts, in its porkpie hat & pinstripes, "See the 500 pound man! A quarter of a ton, in all his quivering, morbid glory! Once, he was just like you, but now he's beyond your wildest dreams! Watch his stomach as it rolls & jiggles out of the spandex shorts we squeeze him into! Shake your head in disapproval at stock footage of him eating! Did you forget about the belly? Let's do a few unnecessary cutaway shots of it! Now, fat man, cry for the cameras because you've never had a girlfriend!" & he does. & I feel sick. Because this show is so, so blatantly exploitative—in the worst, cruelest fashion—of exactly the people it's claiming to help.

Of course, this is partly tied up in the scare tactics—which are also tied up in the product placement: "See how consistently we mock his fatness? You wouldn't want to be mocked, would you? Ergo, fat = bad. Now buy our Wii game." Yes, it all comes together in the end, to form a great big dryer-lint ball of Terrible.

& yet—& yet—I just watched almost an entire season. With rapt attention. (That's 24 hours of my life that I will NEVER GET BACK, DR. PEDOPHILE. NEVER, EVER GET BACK, OMG.) Now, to justify what I have just proven to be a horrible waste of airtime:

As someone who has undertaken pretty massive weight loss before—who understands what it feels like to see ever-descending numbers tick by as you feel leaner & lighter, full of energy in ways you never could have dreamed—The Biggest Loser is like porn. Serious, hardcore porn. Because rather than waiting months at a time for each painstaking pound to trickle through that bitch of an hourglass, you can get the same rush (or, at least a Diet version) in an hour & a half on Hulu.

Moreover, (she says, through gritted teeth, knowing somewhere that Self-important Spraytanned Harpy is cackling in victory over the sound of 100 treadmills starting, just for her) it is inspiring. There. I admit it. Despite all of the bullshit, all of the true & present awfulness that the producers impose upon an already iffy premise, watching people really enjoy eating über-healthily & exercising—& looking good doing it—is pretty fucking persuasive.

So yes, I've set a goal for the end of the summer (adios, Freshman 15...)—but no way am I buying that goddamn Wii game.

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