We're erratic when it comes to overweight people. Our you-go-girl, underdog-loving culture tells us to support them (and blast the media for its perfect-size-6 hang-ups). Yet our obsession with willpower and persistence the American by-the-bootstraps ethic limits our patience with people who can't trim the fat. This ambivalence is jaggedly showcased on NBC's reality series The Biggest Loser, in which two teams of plus-size contestants try to outwit, out-smart, and outskinny each other.
Led by trainers, the teams diet, exercise, and put up with Caroline Rhea (Sabrina, the Teenage Witch), who fulfills her Kathy Griffinesque destiny by becoming a completely random, unnecessary host. Each week, Rhea, shining with school-marmishness, commands every player to mount the scale, the big-screen numbers flicking from 320 to 280 to 310 to no whammies, no whammies! the final weight. The team that loses the least overall poundage must eliminate a player. Were this the sole component, the show would be a fairly positive Oprah-style series (forced revelation of man breasts and tummy rolls aside). Certainly there are good feelings: After pretty much any physical activity doing extra squats, playing lifeguard on the beach a contestant will reliably discuss how the task made him realize he could do anything. Or that she should believe more in herself. The predictability of these self-pride moments doesn't take away from their sweetness. Who wouldn't get choked up at caustic Ryan weeping with relief at his progress, or now-ousted Kelly Mac saying, teary-eyed, that ''for the first time in 32 years, I take my breath away''?
But there's a loathsome, mock-the-fatty undertow to Biggest Loser. Part of the ugliness comes courtesy of the editing. I hate to hate crybaby Lisa because I know the producers want me to. A woman who goes pink and wails at any setback, she's there to embody the can't-do attitude that's so often ascribed to heavy people. And I'll admit to clenching my teeth when her ''panic attack'' prevented her from climbing the 74 flights of a Los Angeles building, resulting in her losing the contest for her team and being sent to the hospital sobbing in an ambulance.
Loser's challenges are even more manipulative: Many of the stunts have no goal but to ridicule or punish the contestants. One can argue that forcing out-of-shape folks to climb to the top of that L.A. building was a lesson in perseverance. But what's the point of making them squeeze in and out of car windows too small for them? Or forcing them to build a tower of pastries using only their mouths? Or compete for a bag of lard? (Thereby forcing a nation to make an immediate, collective ''tub of'' reference.)
These contests seem to be mean-spirited attention-getting ploys: They're designed to be outrageous, to get viewers to join in ''They made them do what?'' conversations the next day. The gimmick is more cruel than clever, and it undermines the rest of the show. To use one of the gustatory phrases of which the series is so fond: The Biggest Loser leaves a bad taste in my mouth.