It's fair to say that "The Biggest Loser" is the one reality show to feature only contestants who have probably been called that and worse over the course of their lives.
Other shows feature wanna-be supermodels, B-list celebrities, tycoons-in-training, or even deserving families seeing their wildest dreams come true, but none carry the weight (figuratively and literally) of this one. Fourteen contestants, some of them well over 100 pounds overweight, elect to try and lose the excess poundage on national television through that quaint weight-loss gimmick known as diet and exercise.
The strategy is a lot like the one that millions of Americans will vow to undertake somewhere around New Year's Day, but the results on the show were a whole lot different.
Matt takes the prize
Matt, the wrestler from Iowa was officially crowned The Biggest Loser for dropping the highest percentage of his body weight during the competition. He lost 157 pounds off his formerly 339-pound frame, a 46.21 percent decrease. Seth came in second at 42.27 percent, losing a mere 132 pounds, while Suzy lost 41.85 percent of her body weight to come in third.
Matt took home $250,000 for winning, while Seth and Suzy won $50,000 and $20,000 for their performances. In the consolation bracket, made up of the 10 contestants willing to come for one final weigh-in at the finale after being voted off earlier in the show, Pete won $100,000 for dropping a whopping 185 pounds, from 401 to 216.
In this case, however, the money wasn't really the point. That was evident watching as each of the 13 contestants strode to the scale, and the big screen on stage flashed back to their first weigh-in when the show began. The transformations — only one of the 13 lost fewer than 78 pounds — were jaw-dropping.
Anyone who looked at the contestants from "The Biggest Loser" during the season finale would probably never have guessed that any would have the need to appear on a weight-loss show.
That's the whole idea.
More than a gimmick
"The Biggest Loser" doesn't seem like a formula for a sure-fire hit show.
It's hard to imagine how the premise for this show could possibly have been pitched to network executives. "We get a house full of really overweight people and try and get them to lose weight — not by bringing in Dr. Phil to browbeat them or having them undergo plastic surgery like on those other TV shows, but by eating better and working out! And we're going to call it 'The Biggest Loser'."
It sounds like something better suited to an after-school special or PBS report than a primetime show. In most reality shows, contestants sign up for the money, fame, or just a desire to be on TV. On the "Biggest Loser," Jeff said his motivation was "I don't want to go on an airplane and worry that I'm not going to fit in the seat." In case anyone had any doubts about the gameplan, host Caroline Rhea reminded everyone at the beginning that "It's not about surgery or quick-fix gimmicks. It's about losing weight the old-fashioned way, with diet and exercise."
In hindsight, it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise that the show did well enough to warrant not only a third season, but the traditionally overextended two-hour season finale for season two. At a time of year when most people feel like they've overindulged at the Thanksgiving table and are about to do the same during the December holiday season, it's natural that a show that features contestants conquering their own weight-loss demons would be compelling.
While much of the show took place at a ranch, with two trainers and exercise machines always on hand to provide motivation, the three finalists had to spend the last five months working out on their own. Showing clips from that time period indicated how hard it is to lose weight when temptations are just a car ride away.
Suzy, at a restaurant with her friends, dealt with a menu devoid of healthy foods and friends who urged her to try dishes anyway. Matt, trying to stay sober as well as svelte, went to a bar with his old crew and had to resist the temptation and peer pressure to get back into the old routine. "My closest friends just won't let it go," he said in frustration.
Not many in the viewing audience haven't struggled to lose the occasional pound or 10, and the recognition of that struggle is one reason for the show's popularity. But anyone can see people trying to lose weight simply by going to the gym, so the show's entertainment factors have been critical in making it a success.
The first few weeks are men vs. women, which creates the team dynamic that makes for good television. Contestants are voted off every week, meaning we get to watch the uncomfortable gyrations of housemates having to vote off people they've just spent the past few months sweating alongside of. And there is a certain element of strategy involved, both in who gets voted off and what individual contestants do when they're not in danger (Matt, for example, actually gained 12 pounds after winning immunity one week, then lost 26 the following week to stay alive).
But ultimately, one feature that sets the show apart from other reality shows is that all the contestants are really trying to improve their health, and for some, that becomes more important than the $250,000 prize for the winner. The result is that this season had a more collaborative approach after the early weeks, even reaching a point midway through where Jeff went around asking for the rest of the group to vote him out instead of Pete, since he felt Pete deserved to stay.
The group ignored his wishes and kept him around, because ultimately this is a competition and the goal is to win. Still, it was one of many nights where everyone on the show, and much of the audience, was shedding some tears at the finish.
No villains on 'Biggest Loser'
The nature of the contest means that while it's easy to pick a favorite to root for, it's hard to find an arch-villain to detest. There are no Johnny Fairplays or Omorosas here, conniving to manipulate voters by any means necessary. Everybody is in the same boat, trying to lose weight.
Moreover, alliances are less important in this game than in others, since everyone controls their own destiny every week. In the early going, contestants earn immunity by winning challenges or losing the most weight.
As the competition continues, only the bottom two in weight loss are eligible to be voted off. This means every contestant is working hard not to backstab their rivals or cast blame for whatever ails the group, but to lose enough weight to stay on the right side of the dreaded yellow line. The result is a show that has contestants to root for, but nobody to root against.
Another aspect unique to this show is that for almost every contestant, the program really seems to work even after they're voted off.
At the results show, where those eliminated contestants returned, it was obvious that they were different people. Instead of worrying about fitting into their clothes, they seemed a lot happier with who they were and how they looked.
"When people tell you how good you look … it affects you inside," Seth said. And to Suzanne, the police officer whose goal was to fit into her wedding dress, Caroline said "people probably speed just so they can see you."
"Look at these hotties!" Rhea said. And that transformation is what the show is all about for the contestants — being celebrated for their bodies, instead of being ridiculed.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.