There are times when television rules our house. There are certain shows we watch with an intense level of concentration and involvement that even prohibits exchanging opinions until the credits roll. At other times, television functions as background, or ‘white’ noise, much as radio once did, and perhaps still does, while other activities are taking place in the home. While doing chores around the house I like shows I can dip in and out of, without too many demands on either my concentration or emotional engagement. Over the last few months, however, one series has gradually captured my attention. That series is NBC’s The Biggest Loser.
The Biggest Loser is a reality-tv game show now in its fourteenth series. Like other reality-based series such as America’s Next Top Model and X-Factor, contestants are removed from their everyday lives and thrown together in a high-pressure environment in which they compete for a prize. In the case of The Biggest Loser, however, contestants do not sing or perform. The Biggest Loser features obese people who compete to have the highest percentage of weight loss in order to win a cash prize. Every week, those who have the lowest percentage of weight loss run the risk of being voted off by the others, until the one who loses the most weight wins. While the series consistently scores high in the ratings for NBC, it is also the hub of a network of ancillary products, all on view on the show’s official website.1 These include everything from cookbooks, training dvds, workout gear and dietary supplements, to three resorts that offer ‘life-changing transformations’ to allow those who do not make it onto the show the chance to sample The Biggest Loser ‘lifestyle’ and to ‘reclaim the “power of you.”’ Unsurprisingly, much of the academic attention the show attracts is focused on the connections between the series and consumerism, or on the idea of the series as contributing to the idea of weight gain as a moral failure. What first made me abandon my chores and sit on the couch to watch the series, however, were the maneuvers The Biggest Loser executes in its attempt to accommodate the idea of a compelling struggle between life and death within the format of a game show.
Weight loss is characterized as a matter of life and death throughout the show. Early in each series, contestants meet with the series’ physician, Dr. Robert Huizenga, where they are brutally confronted with their ‘real number’ – the years that obesity-related health issues have added to their actual age. Alfredo Dinten, for example, a contestant on Season 10 who suffered from diabetes, is told by Huizenga he is on ‘a one-way trip to the morgue’ (Week 2). In an emotional ‘follow-up’ 8 weeks later, Huizenga proclaims that Dinten has been cured by the show’s extreme regime. Contestants also give regular emotional testimonies that The Biggest Loser represents a chance to save their lives. Another participant in Season 10, Sandy Dolan, for example, tearfully recounts in repeated interviews how she joined the series following her brother’s death from heart failure five days after his own audition for The Biggest Loser. The extreme fitness regime that contestants are subject to heightens the stakes even more, frequently leading to dramatic moments in which people throw up, cry or, as in the case of Mo De Walt and Tracey Yukich in Season 8, need to be hospitalized. ‘The show saves lives’ is a mantra repeated not only in interviews with contestants and their families in the series itself, but also in the public discourse that surrounds The Biggest Loser. The Biggest Loser emerges from all of this very much as a show performing a public service, tackling the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ in America and saving both lives and money (the cost of the ‘epidemic’ to American health care is also emphasized throughout).
Yet The Biggest Loser is simultaneously a game show that not only eliminates at least one contestant a week, thereby cutting them off from the life-saving apparatus that the showapparently represents, but that also subjects them to regular ‘challenges’ in which they have to compete to win certain advantages in the game, or prizes. One such challenge isin the form of a ‘temptation’, in which participants are given the choice of consuming some form of high-calorie food, such as cupcakes, running the risk of sabotaging their weekly weigh-in in order to gain an advantage in the game. Perhaps in an attempt to counter the conceptual dissonance such scenes generate, the series is shot through with odd moments of transparency about its own process. Most of these are delivered by two of the trainersresponsible for the contestants’ physical regime, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels. Both barely conceal their disapproval of game-playing in general and of the temptation challenge in particular, with Harper in one episode stating that he ‘hates the game’ and the contestants who indulge in gameplaying (Season 8, Week 3). Harper and Michaels even undermine one of The Biggest Loser’s most fondly held conceits, that the show can ‘inspire’ people to lose weight on their own by admitting that out of the isolated ‘fantasy land’ of the ranch, as Michaels refers to it, some participants struggle to maintain their weight loss (Season 10, Week 10.).
Unlike the Dutch television game show Weg Van Nederland, which gives failed asylum seekers the chance to win money (along with a bag of tulips and a bulletproof vest) before they are deported, The Biggest Loser does not push the limits of the game show format. No contestant has actually died as a result of being voted off, even if they do go on to regain the weight they lost. What the show manages to do, however, is suggest that the game show format is a necessary evil in the ‘struggle’ against obesity, both on an individual and a national scale for America. Like the junk food the series condemns, the combination of ingredients may make the show difficult to digest, but it is also precisely what makes the show difficult to resist. The parts that make it difficult to swallow have garnered the most attention both academically and in the public press but for me, the parts that make it tempting have prompted me to reclassify The Biggest Loser from background television to television that must be watched, and with no small measure of emotional engagement. There is a powerful and compelling drama to radical physical transformation, particularly when it is accompanied by (admittedly carefully packaged) narratives of personal ‘journeys’. Whether the show inspires people to lose weight is the source of some debate, but I have been moved and inspired in a different way by The Biggest Loser – for instance when two participants deliberately stopped just short of winning a physical challenge to allow a third, their friend, to go on to win that week’s prize, a much-needed family car (Season 10, Week 9), momentarily taking control of the ‘game’ and transforming it into an unexpected and touching moment of altruism. The Biggest Loser does not always maintain a healthy balance between high stakes and the game show format, but what I am suggesting here is that it is more complex a dish than most of its critiques suggest. Try it – what have you got to lose?
Debra Ramsay is a part-time tutor at Leicester University. Her doctoral research examined war, memory and media through contemporary representations of World War II in American film, television and games. She is the author of articles on the impact of DVD and Blu-Ray on the relationship between history, film and television, and has also written on the First Person Shooter and war memory.
1. For examples, see Zuzanna Blaszkiewics, ‘Reality Television and the Promotion of Weight loss: a Canadian Case’ , The McMaster Journal of Communication, Vol5, Issue 1, 2009. 29-40 and ‘Epidemics of will, failures of self-esteem: Responding to fat bodies in The Biggest Loser and What Not to Wear.’ Katherine Sender, Margaret Sullivan Continuum Vol. 22, Iss. 4, 2008, 573-584