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‘Biggest Loser’ can still inspire audiences

As the fourth season of “The Biggest Loser” kicks off this week, NBC has some twists and turns designed to increase the drama. There’s more tension and bickering among the contestants, a third trainer to whip people into shape, a less luxurious setting and a new host to smile and act encouraging for the three minutes of airtime she’ll get each week. Ultimately, however, the show is pretty
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

As the fourth season of “The Biggest Loser” kicks off this week, NBC has some twists and turns designed to increase the drama. There’s more tension and bickering among the contestants, a third trainer to whip people into shape, a less luxurious setting and a new host to smile and act encouraging for the three minutes of airtime she’ll get each week.

Ultimately, however, the show is pretty much exactly what it’s always been. That’s good news for NBC, which has found a way to combine the appeal of reality television with America's obesity epidemic, and turned it into a steady source of popular programming.

The basic premise is the same as always. A group of contestants who are grossly overweight take this opportunity to really focus on getting those extra pounds off, with trainers pushing them. There’s temptation, tears, and torture (albeit only in the form of intense barking from the show’s trainers). There are also transformations, with last season’s winner, Erik, dropping a whopping 214 pounds.

The audience watches everyone’s backstory, which in true reality television tradition, makes most of the hopefuls into sympathetic characters. One contestant this season is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, one a grandfather, one a single mother. There's a set of twins. One talks about wanting to be able to walk his daughters down the aisle. All of them talk about how their lives have been negatively affected because of how much they weigh.

That makes it hard not to root for everyone to succeed, which is the point. The appeal of “The Biggest Loser” is that the prize is mostly the right to be there as long as possible, and the audience watches to see who loses the weight rather than who wins the $250,000 grand prize. The show offers a chance to see what can happen when people receive intensive support in the weight-loss process, and likely serves as an inspiration for viewers to get off the couch and try and start the process themselves.

The cash, though always nice to receive, is secondary. If it weren’t mentioned periodically on the air, not many viewers would miss it.

It’s usually only toward the end of each season that the prize becomes a topic of conversation among contestants; most of the comments aired in early episodes center around wanting to stick around so they can lose more weight. Besides, it’s easier to earn money trying to outsmart fifth graders or pick the right briefcase on “Deal or No Deal” than it is to lose all of that weight.

Hostess with the mostest

Not everything is the same this season, however, with the biggest change being the face of the series.  Comedian Caroline Rhea is gone after three seasons as host, replaced by "Days of Our Lives" star Alison Sweeney.

The "Loser" host role really offers very little to do each week besides congratulating people on their weight loss and informing the eliminated contestant that they aren’t the biggest loser. Yet the question of who should get the job has always been somewhat controversial.  Rhea was no threat to be eligible to be a contestant, but she, too, has struggled with her weight, and is hardly as trim as the show's trainers.

Because the program is about weight loss, Rhea’s status caused a lot of discussion among the show’s fans. Some felt that it was nice for the contestants to have a host who struggled with her own weight, while others thought, often voicing their opinions vehemently, Rhea was too large to host a show about weight loss.

Sweeney is a compromise between the two camps. She has struggled with her weight on “Days,” even writing about that in a 2004 memoir, but now doesn’t look like someone who has to diet very often. Her own past weight issues could be an interesting angle, but the show is unlikely to explore it.

The host’s role is largely ceremonial, with the story centering on the trainers and the contestants.  In fact, this season there’s an extra trainer to find minutes for. Jillian Michaels returns after a year’s absence to join Bob Harper and Kim Lyons, and how the trio fits together is one of the show’s early twists.

Michaels reportedly left the show last season because she was unhappy at how she was portrayed. If she was hoping to be depicted as something other than a drill sergeant she might not like this one either.  All of the trainers work their team hard, and as always some contestants are pushed near their breaking point.

Even so, a lot of viewers would trade places with the “Biggest Loser” contestants. Not everyone wants to go on “Survivor” or be stuck in a house like “Big Brother,” but the chance to work with trainers in an intense atmosphere is a hard temptation to ignore.  The chance to sit on the couch for an hour and watch people trying to lose weight has turned out to be just escapist enough to give NBC a hit show.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.