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‘Biggest Loser’ jumps back on the scale

Last season’s sleeper reality hit was a show that had a heart beneath its layers of reality TV fat. When “The Biggest Loser” debuted on NBC, the weight loss-focused competition series seemed to be just an excuse to torture fat people for our amusement.In the first episode, contestants were confronted with obscenely overflowing piles of their favorite foods. For breakfast, they were tempted w
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Last season’s sleeper reality hit was a show that had a heart beneath its layers of reality TV fat. When “The Biggest Loser” debuted on NBC, the weight loss-focused competition series seemed to be just an excuse to torture fat people for our amusement.

In the first episode, contestants were confronted with obscenely overflowing piles of their favorite foods. For breakfast, they were tempted with huge platters of eggs, bacon, and donuts. The two trainers assigned to help the contestants lose weight seemed to be more interested in promoting their own style of weight loss than helping the individuals assigned to them. Contestants were split into teams, and the team that lost the least amount of weight had to vote a member off, sending one person each week away from the trainers and the support of their teams.

But rather quickly, the show’s emotional center emerged, and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” had some competition in the feel-good reality TV subgenre. Watching the pounds disappear as new attitudes and behaviors emerged was both inspiring and heartwarming. The trainers gave advice and discussed diets that allowed viewers to, at the very least, feel like they could take advantage of the contestants’ regimen.

All of that led to more than 23 million people watching the season finale earlier this year. The success of “The Biggest Loser” success has led NBC to renew the series for a second season, which debuts with a 90-minute episode on Sept. 13.

NBC is also planning to produce a spin-off version of the series. “The Biggest Loser: Something versus Something,” will air as a series of one-episode specials in which groups of people will compete against each other as they lose weight. There’s also a pair of show-themed workout videos on the way. Clearly, this is a formula that works.

Men vs. women

While the cast literally carries the weight of the show, its success is also due to the three personalities who oversee the proceedings, the show’s two trainers and host. Trainers Jillian and Bob became quick celebrities as they guided their team’s diet and workout regiments, which were distinctly their own and provided an interesting counterpoint to the other.

Bob Harper’s approach is much more nurturing. In his introduction, he says, “I’m about what’s going on inside. I work from the inside out.” Both are compassionate, however, and ultimately seem to be genuinely concerned with helping their charges lose weight and change their outlook on life.

This year, “The Biggest Loser” borrows from other competitive reality shows by dividing the teams by sex. Since, as one contestant put it, “men lose weight faster than women do,” the teams will win or lose as a result of the percentage of weight they lose. Jillian’s aggressive approach will help reign in the men, while Bob will help the women hug their way to victory.

Overseeing them all will be returning host and comedian Caroline Rhea, a persistently perky mother figure. Although viewers can guess that she might have a sarcastic remark hiding behind her smile, and even though she gives the contestants unpleasant tasks and unpleasant news, Rhea stays in mother mode, comforting the contestants and always smiling.

The show's combination of physical transformation, tough love, and emotional support seemed to set a new standard for reality television. The series was genuinely different, as it profoundly transformed the lives of all of its cast members — and affected many viewers as well, inspiring them to change their lives.

But at its core, “The Biggest Loser” is still a reality show.

While the weight loss draws people in, the series ultimately succeeded by seamlessly combining elements from other series: engaging challenges, overwhelming temptations, dramatic eliminations—and the entertainment that emerges from those elements.

At each week’s weigh-in, the contestants strip down and climb onto a huge scale that’s made just for reality TV. Its numbers don’t climb incrementally upwards; they jump around randomly before settling on the actual weight, just to add to the drama.

Does she weigh 220? 250? 227? 201? 415? 120? No, it’s 235!

The team that loses the least amount of weight each week votes a team member out of the game by revealing their vote atop a plate underneath a silver cover. The elimination part of the game makes for good television, as the contestants fight to stay or to eliminate their competition, but it also proves that the producers are more concerned with our entertainment than they are with helping the cast lose weight. Other than to increase the drama and tension, why send someone home each week?

In a preview for the new season, one of the women says, “I can’t go home. I haven’t fixed me.” It’s a heartbreaking confession, revealing that she doesn’t yet realize that she has the power to exercise and diet without trainers, the threat of elimination, or camera crews hanging over her.

The truth, though, is that this unnecessary cruelty could go away and the series would still work. Why not let all 14 cast members stick it out to the end to see who really is the biggest loser?

Why not have a scale that actually just shows someone’s weight instead of schizophrenically teasing the person standing on it?

Perhaps producers fear the loss of drama, but the only real losers would be those that enjoy watching others suffer. Instead, let’s watch them survive.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.