I watched every episode of the new season of The Biggest Loser last week, and quite enjoyed it despite some howls from Twitter (and everywhere else) about the overtly “skinny is beautiful/fat is ugly and undeserving of love” theme this season. I empathized with the contestants, and their stories resonated with me. I could very much relate to the young girls in particular – I have always been overweight for my entire adult life, and up until I met my fiancée at age 26 I had never had a boyfriend.
But the more I watched, the more unsettled I became. Yes, traditionally the trainers had always yelled at the contestants in previous seasons. Their first workout was always an opportunity to film sequences of large people sweating and straining, of them giving up and being exhorted to greater efforts by their trainers. They would reveal the demons that had haunted them and the trainers would use this information to remind them why they were there.
And underlying it all this time was the message – if you don’t lose weight, you will never find love. No wonder so many viewers have gotten a queasy feeling in their stomach. The show has always flogged the ‘weight-loss is good’ message but turned it into a competition. Not sure if this was to make the show more interesting by introducing a political aspect or simply to motivate the contestants more, but it was always there. Recently the Australian version introduced an education aspect into their weight-loss regime, brining in a cook and a doctor to talk to the contestants about healthy eating and habits. I applauded this as the more information they receive that they can use outside the boundaries of the show the better. And at the same time the viewers were being educated as well with health facts about everything from their bio-age to things you can substitute for white rice.
The introduction of The Commando last season as one of the trainers has also added a more interesting element to me personally. Yes, because he’s insanely physically attractive – but also because his training style is so very different from Shannon, Michelle and Tiffany. His military background means that his approach is about teaching independence, resourcefulness and most of all, self-confidence. This aligns nicely with what I have read about training programs in US Special Forces such as Delta and British and Australian SAS. (I don't know why, but these groups have always fascinated me. Probably because they're so stealthy and cool and shit).
This season however, the added element of having only singles has changed the show substantially. No longer are we rooting for our favorites because we want them to be healthy. Instead we are being told we should be cheering them on so they can get skinny and get some action. It has left a bad taste in my mouth.
It wasn’t until I was watching Excess Baggage last night that I realized that I don’t have to put up with that sort of crap from my favorite reality TV show. Here was a show with the same premise, but an entirely different approach. Here’s the things I liked and that I predict will mean that this show will win the ratings war hands down this year.
- The Host – Kate Cebrano is a breath of fresh air. Compare her cheeky joking with Dipper in the opening scenes of the show with Hayley Lewis’ stilted, scripted delivery. I’m not hating on Hayley – in fact I think she has done a wonderful job the past few years – but Kate is much more natural and has the added bonus of being goofy and able to laugh at herself.
- The Premise – There was a remark last night from someone on the show that summed it up best – it was something like “this show is not about seeing who can lose the most weight". Yes, the “Spirit Walk” where the contestants found presents of meaning to themselves was a touch contrived, but it provided the perfect vehicle for us to hear a bit about their back-story without a series of endless montages. The show has firmly sold itself as a journey of self, not of shedding kilos. Not only are contestants wanting to drop some weight, they genuinely want to make their life better. And they don’t need the motivation of winning money to do it – they’re clearly doing it for themselves (with a little bit of self-promotion thrown in). On offer is a donation to charity, instead of a pot of cash for one person. Is this something that Channel 9 borrowed from The Apprentice perhaps? The celebs not only get to lose weight, learn about health and promote their brand – they get to look good working for a charity while doing it.
- The Contestants – having a “celebrity” (I used the term loosely, perhaps “well-known personality” might be better) teamed with a “regular” person is a stroke of pure genius. Not only do we get to cheer along with the Average Joes, we gain an insight into the lives of folk with a higher profile and their struggles. EVEN FAMOUS PEOPLE HAVE HANG-UPS OMG. This appeals to the voyeuristic nature of reality TV viewers and allows us that forbidden, tantalizing glimpse into the lives of the people we read about in New Idea. The two-person team idea is itself also different – instead of multiple people, there’s only one other person to mentor and encourage. Interesting. I suspect it’s the Average Joes that might end up doing more mentoring instead of the other way about.
- Lack of a Meanie – every reality show seems to have written into it one person whom the viewer is obviously supposed to hate. This is achieved usually through creative editing, out-of-context remarks and post-incident to-camera testimonials where other contestants are encouraged to bitch about them. I’m looking at you here, My Kitchen Rules. But despite a couple of remarks around one of the contestants not “bonding” immediately with his partner, and another about him being “hard”, there is nobody to really hate amongst this group. Dislike, yes, or feel disappointed in, but not hate. (I suspect Darryn is just a bit of an over-achieving, driven narcissist, personally. He just needs to work on realizing not everybody else is too).
- The Location – stunning scenery makes it all prettier. And ups the difficulty factor when you’re working out in 40 degree heat, I guess.
What do you think? It’s a big call I know, but Excess Baggage really pressed all my buttons, whereas Biggest Loser is starting to stink like mayo left out in the sun. I know which show I'll be watching from now on.