Mr. Coogan's So-Called Television Column

Alright, I’ll admit it”¦I am an overweight American.

I’m not morbidly obese. I’m not confined to my bed with my laptop writing about the hours and hours of TV I watch per day while I wait for someone to turn me over. I don’t need to drive 45 minutes to the closest “Tall and Fat” men’s store (RIP – Rodney Dangerfield”¦) to buy a new suit or pair of slacks.

In fact, if I walk into a store, a restaurant, or any other social setting, I probably won’t stick out any more than anyone else you might come in contact with on a given day. I can still shop at any store in the mall and find something to my liking, though I do have to go to the larger sizes in the men’s department. I don’t need any extra space when I sit on a bus, train, or airplane either.

Despite the sheer normalcy of my life, ever since I came to grad school in the late summer of 2002, I just have had a hard time keeping myself from gaining weight. An erratic class and work schedule combined with a lot of additional time required in the classroom, library, and in front of a computer left little time for working out regularly and eating well. So, my life of up and down weight loss and weight gain has continued for the worst. When I finally finish grad school in the middle of next year and head back into the workforce, hopefully, that will change dramatically as it did when I had a regular job and a commute less than an hour to work. In the mean time, I try my best to maintain myself despite a largely sedentary lifestyle. Excuses? Some may see them as such. Then again, if you’ve never been a full-time grad student and chained to a desk morning, night, and weekends, you wouldn’t understand.

That’s not the point though”¦

I’m always on the look out for quick fix ideas that might help me lose some weight without necessarily committing to spending too much time at the gym or eating nothing but meat, cheese and lettuce. I’m not dumb enough to let myself be duped by those ridiculous infomercials that promise the use of a wacky machine for five minutes per day will give me rock hard abs or those pills that will allow me to put french fries on my pizza and still allow me to lose my love handles in record time. But I’m on the lookout nonetheless.

So, when I heard about the new NBC reality show, “The Biggest Loser,” I became relatively intrigued. I figured that in addition to watching a different kind of competition, I might pick up some tips to help me with my ongoing battle with the extra pounds I carry around my waist.

Considering obesity in the United States is a mammoth problem, NBC took advantage of that and probably considered that tens of millions of people facing similar challenges that I am and figured it had a solid hit on its hands that could motivate a lot of different people.

Instead, what it produced is reality television at its worst”¦

The show began as one might expect. The audience gets the opportunity to meet the contestants, six men and six women of varying ages (21-40) and weights (175 pounds — 436) with all sorts of different personalities and from all over the country, though the Boston area seems a little over represented with three of the 12 contestants coming from within 20-30 miles of the city.

All this goes on while the players walk up to their sprawling Malibu, Ca. mansion. Of course, the place is gigantic, contains a lot of land for the contestants to exercise, and two full gyms with top of the line cardio vascular and weight equipment so the contestants can work out extensively.

From there, the audience gets to meet the host of this reality competition show, comedian/actress/former talk show host, Carolone Rhea, someone who hasn’t been shy about addressing her overweight frame. She immediately tempts the contestants with a table filled with a bevy of high fat, high carb, high calorie, high sugar snacks hopefully in order to make these people pant like dogs on a July day in Texas. Compelling television.

After that set of temptations, the group is allowed to go up to their rooms, unpack, and settle in before all being called down for their official weigh in and their official starting weight before beginning the contest. Of course, all of the contestants have to either weigh in with their shirts off or wearing revealing bathing suits to embarrass and humiliate themselves.

Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse after the weigh in, each contestant is thrown into a tank of water so their body fat can be accurately measured. Where is my remote control? Oh”¦I’m hitting myself in the temple as hard as I can with it.

Oh great”¦more unnecessary enticement. After getting their body fat measured, the group is led to a room where each contestant has a “temptation refrigerator” that contains heaping portions of four of their favorite foods in the world. The refrigerators don’t have locks on them either, so the people there have to fight temptation every day they are there.

After the humiliation ends, the rules of the first part of the contest are finally outlined and the audience can finally find out how “The Biggest Loser” is determined. The 12 contestants are split into two different teams, red and blue, with three men and three women going onto each team.

From there, each team will work with a trainer to get them into shape in the form of outlining exercise and eating programs and motivating them along the way. Bob trains the blue team and subscribes to the “Eat More” diet in which the contestants should eat several small meals per day in an effort to combat hunger before it comes. In addition, Bob is a gentle trainer who seeks to not discourage his team with workouts that are too intense, too soon. Meanwhile, Jillian gets the red team on the “Eat Less” diet where she has her team eat more high protein, high fiber foods in controlled portions. The high fiber, high protein foods are part of the diet because they are supposed to make the competitors feel full sooner. She also believes that she needs to get in the faces of the members of her team to motivate them. In some cases, it works; in others, it’s more frustrating and annoying than anything else.

The goal: the team that loses the most weight in a seven day period wins and is exempt from their punishment and everyone is allowed to stay. The team that loses the least amount of weight must vote off one team member, “Survivor” style. The person outlasts the other 11 gets the grand prizes: the title of “The Biggest Loser” and a $250,000 cash prize.

And so it begins.

Starting the next morning, the trainers begin working each team harder than any of them have worked in years, if at all. Naturally, each competitor, not used to the intense workouts, has some sort of violent reaction. Some scream and cry exclaiming that they can’t do it. Some simply move as slow as the trainer allows. One guy even leaves the gym to throw up in the back yard. Surprisingly, this doesn’t strike me as all that demeaning or insulting. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s like this for 18-year-olds leaving home for the first time when they go to military boot camp.

What comes next is a strange physical task to help make the show even more interesting I suppose. Essentially, the group that pulls a stock car across a finish line at a race track first will cause the other team to have a five pound penalty at the first weigh in. The blue team won the competition and caused the red team to endure that five pound penalty at weigh in time.

After this, the show becomes ridiculous, unrealistic, and bordering on insulting. When Jillian finds out about the red team’s loss and penalty, she calculates that each person is going to have to lose an additional 0.8 pounds and that translates to burning an additional 3,000 calories. So, she makes them do it”¦for hours and hours”¦and hours. She even threatens that they have to forego sleep to work out. All this in the name of a reality show competition. And of course, the blue team has to keep up because they need to lose weight as well so they are working out at the gym for hours and hours per day before the first weigh in.

So, the first weigh in comes and the red team loses the most weight despite the five pound penalty they had to face. OK”¦I suppose that’s fine. However, what struck me as ridiculous is the fact that three of the larger men lost more than 19 pounds”¦in one week, including one (Matt) going from his previous high of 310 all the way to 287. That’s 23 pounds in ONE WEEK.

Of course, everyone is happy with all the weight they lost. Losing that kind of weight can be a motivating factor, sure. But the question has to be asked here: Is this really healthy? NBC assures us both with a message on the screen after the episode is over and on their Web site that everything is monitored by a set of doctors. OK”¦who’s the doctor, Richard Kimball? Last I heard, he was still running from the U.S. Marshals.

Losing weight is about changing your lifestyle and eating better and exercising more. That’s certainly true. However, it appears that, for the good of the competition and for the right to win the big prize, these people are forced to live a lifestyle that they could never possibly keep up with. The diets are possible to stick with even though it doesn’t allow for any sort of fun food to eat, but the exercise regiments? The only people I know who exercise for 4-6 hours per day like these people do are professional athletes, bodybuilders and personal trainers.

The trainers make it clear that this competition is supposed to help these overweight people change their lives forever, but all they are really doing is unwisely pushing people into lifestyles they could never possibly keep with for the good of this reality show competition.

After all, while it’s very important for people to change their lives, get away from the greasy, fat, calorie laden foods we are used to and exercise more, doctors will probably never say to a person – “Yes. You should definitely lose 15-25 pounds in your first week of a new exercise and eating program.” If anything, most doctors would probably throw up a lot of red flags and say that’s too much, too fast suggesting a pound or two per week. Instead, these contestants are lauded, applauded and praised for what some medical staff might consider reckless behavior.

This type of show does not show what losing weight is all about. While little competitions with friends and family can be fun and motivating factors when losing weight, this mess of a show has reduced these competitors to sheer numbers, the drama of meeting those numbers, and the success and failure if you do. The person who loses the most weight is a great person where the person who loses the least amount of weight should feel ashamed of him/herself and not quite worthy to stay in the competition further.

Anyone who enters a weight loss program and is actually lose some weight should never feel ashamed of themselves. Yet, that’s exactly what this show breeds.

This type of show is supposed to get people motivated to change their lives. It some cases, it may. However, it gets reduced to burning the most calories and losing the greatest number of pounds. It doesn’t matter if that means establishing a new lifestyle that could never be possibly met in the real world when these same people have jobs, families, friends, and other obligations they have to attend to. To quote the NFL Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, “Just win, baby.”

The idea of a show like this is terrific. After all, seeing these kind of stories on “Dr. Phil” and “Oprah” can be quite engaging and motivating to those who need the extra push to get off the sofa and to put down the cheese puffs. However, the execution of “The Biggest Loser” is largely demeaning for the contestants and also largely unrealistic and just plain ridiculous when it comes to their long term health goals.

So, Congratulations NBC. You’ve taken a major problem in American society and instead of actually attacking it appropriately in a way that could have been educational, attention-grabbing, and entertaining, you’ve reduced it to the lowest common denominator in the form of a ridiculous reality show competition that might as well be lumped with “Temptation Island” and “Forever Eden” in the history of this genre.

— Coogan