Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
While watching NBC’s weight loss reality show The Biggest Loser on TV the other night, a thought occurred to me that chilled me to the very bone: when it comes to reality programming, all the networks should learn a lesson from Fox.
In the early, heady days of reality TV, everything was incredibly new and exciting, and just bursting with the potential that comes from real people placed into strange circumstances, with low production values keeping options open. The first two such shows to hit American airwaves – Survivor and Big Brother –had completely opposite premises (one featured disparate strangers placed into the wild and asked to provide everything they needed on their own, while the other confined strangers into a house and watched what would happen when they weren’t asked to do anything), and as such offered a clue as to just how diverse this new genre could be.
The response was overwhelming, and for a while, viewers were willing to watch absolutely anything. Nothing if not sheep following the herd, all the major networks rushed to follow suit, and gave us any hackneyed or hare-brained reality show idea they could get their hands on. Eventually, the craze died down (though never fully abated), and the four major channels each sank into their own reality niche:
CBS – As the pioneer of American reality programming, CBS never strayed far from the methods they started. Today, they are still the home of the grand, epic adventure shows forcing people to do extraordinary things to succeed. In addition to their already mentioned first two, they also have The Amazing Race (A brilliant combination of world travel and jetlag-fueled bitchiness), Kid Nation (From what I’ve read, a show about making kids drink bleach), and Pirate Master (A show about swashbuckling so popular that the final episodes were pulled from the air and shown “exclusively” online).
ABC – As the only major network owned by a giant media conglomerate hell-bent on world domination through family-friendly programming and merchandise, ABC’s reality shows can be identified by their clear and desperate desire to be educational, enriching, or morally redeeming. Cash prizes are often absent, replaced by warm feelings in tummies and tear-soaked group hugs. To that end, we have The Bachelor (one man attempting to find true love amongst 25 pre-screened attention whores), Wife Swap (Families learn not to hate each other so much by banding together to hate an outsider), Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (Entire towns learn what hard work, love, and millions of dollars can do to help one of thousands of families who need it), Supernanny (A childcare expert helps bad parents deal with their brats by teaching them the same self-evident lessons each week), and even Dancing with the Stars (America feels better about not being famous by observing what washed-up celebrities are willing to do to get their aging faces on television). ABC shows are always wholesome, always moral, and always – in every single case – fucking terrible.
NBC – The home of Must See TV had one major reality hit with The Apprentice, and they wisely ran that show directly into the ground through oversaturation and ubiquity. After that, realizing that they were hopelessly behind their competitors in terms of concept and execution, the bigwigs at NBC wisely decided to stop worrying about developing new ideas, and just started stealing other networks’ ideas, years after the fact. Thus, NBC’s airwaves have brought us Age of Love (The Bachelor with old chicks!), Average Joe (The Bachelor with ugly dudes!), For Love or Money (The Bachelor meets Survivor), Last Comic Standing (American Idol with comedians), Phenomenon (American Idol with magicians), and America’s Got Talent (American Idol with David Hasselhoff). These are the reality shows that everyone knows, and yet no one ever watches.
Fox – Never the home for quality or class, Fox took to reality programming like a pig to shit. Unique among all other networks, Fox realized that what viewers really want to see with these shows is failure. People watch shows every day that feature beautiful actors and actresses accomplishing things that most of us can never even dream about. That’s bad enough, but do we really want to watch someone from down the street, or the next town over, gaining fame and credibility as they beat incredible odds to accomplish something spectacular? Please. Other people’s successes only make us feel worse about ourselves. However, when viewers get to see terrible people doing humiliating things terribly, they get to feel better about themselves twice over (“I’d never do something like that, and even if I did, I could do it better than he did!”). Temptation Island, Love Cruise, Paradise Hotel, Joe Millionaire, Married by America, and Mr. Personality are all examples of shows that offer a cast of characters that are easy to hate, absolutely abasing themselves for fifteen minutes of just-better-than-porn screen time, for a chance at a few bucks. In addition to this, Fox also adopted NBC’s habit of stealing other networks’ ideas, with a twist. When a network announces a new show they feel strongly about, Fox has a habit of stealing the idea, changing it JUST ENOUGH to be different, slapping a cash prize on the end, and getting it on the air BEFORE the original network (Nanny 911 and Trading Spouses: Meet your new Mommy as two examples). Let the parade of misery begin!
I have watched a lot of reality programming over the years, and I truly thought I had seen the worst the genre had to offer. However, The Biggest Loser created a new benchmark for me. It’s a simple enough premise – obese contestants split up into teams, endure intense workout regimens and strict diets, then step onto a public scale to determine how much weight they’ve lost – and yet I found it simultaneously boring and infuriating. However, before I can adequately describe all that’s wrong with the show, I first have to describe how it could have been done successfully. In other words, I have to explain how Fox would have done it.
In order to create a program that would appeal to the most people, Fox would first change the name into something far more exploitative and mean, such as Fat Camp or Chubby Checkers. All of the contestants would be forced to live in the same house, with two or more people sharing a room. There would be no air conditioning, and only one bathroom for them all to share. (It’s better already, isn’t it?) The end goal would be a cash prize, rather than wussy rewards like self-respect and pride. And then, over the course of the series, the producers would throw in at least one of the following “twists:”
- The refrigerator in the house would be stocked with high-fat, empty calorie treats, and a night-vision camera would be installed above it to capture all indiscretions.
- The meals served to the contestants will never be of an adequate size, and no alterations to their clothes will ever be permitted.
- A hot woman will come into the house as a guest, and profess to be a “chubby chaser.” The men will be forced to choose between sticking with the game, and getting a chance to bone her.
- Halfway through the run of the show, a handful of fit and skinny contestants will be invited into the house, and the game.
- With a reward on the line, a contestant will be asked to scarf down a huge plate of cheese fries. Will he go for the car, or resist temptation for the sake of the bigger prize?
The show I have just described would be an execrable pile of waste, without an ounce of redeeming value to be found in it, and yet it’d be popular. That’s because the players would enter the show knowing exactly how awful they look and how shallow they’re going to be made to look, and they’d sign up for it anyway. That fact creates an unwritten contract between show and viewer, making it okay to despise those people and their actions. Viewers would flock to the show, unable to believe how humiliating each successive ordeal is for the players, and also flabbergasted that, knowing this, they continue to do them nonetheless. In short, we’d have turned this concept into a reality show.
The Biggest Loser, by contrast, is nothing of the sort. Bound and determined that the show is compelling on its own, the producers offer nothing more than the basic concept itself for your viewing pleasure, and throw no curveballs at the contestants or viewers at any point. And so, what you end up with is a show about…working out and dieting. I can think of three incredibly big problems with this:
- Working out is boring – Don’t misunderstand me here: working out is important, and cathartic, and always feels great. I do it as often as I can…and yet I don’t ever talk about it with other people, because no one cares about my workouts, just as I don’t care about theirs. Talking about your exercise regimen is like talking about your dreams, or cute things your cat did: they might be unendingly fascinating to you, but not even your mother can bring herself to care about them. Does that sound like a quality that works on television?
- Watching other people work out is not fun television – Watching television is a passive act, and it is often used as an example of the opposite of working out. The Biggest Loser asks people to sit on their asses, and watch a show about people getting OFF their asses. Not only does this formula NOT allow viewers to feel superior to the contestants as they want to, but it makes them feel badly just by the very act of watching the show. This to me is like reading a book that sucks, yet every other page states that only assholes fail to appreciate its brilliance. It’s somehow both unpleasant and shaming at the same time.
- A show about dieting has no dramatic tension – This is the main problem with the show. It’s all well and good for The Biggest Loser to insist that the show can stand on its own without the need for gimmicks thrown in to artificially create drama, but the problem with this is that every show – including this one – NEEDS drama to keep people interested. Because Loser failed to account for this in production, producers and editors had to compensate for it after the fact. Thus, the show is filled wall-to-wall with brooding and overwrought music that sounds like it belongs more in a Tom Clancy movie adaptation than here. Simple conversations and acts (like finding out how much somebody weighs) are split up across commercial breaks as though we’re waiting with bated breath to find out the resolution. And the writers, DESPERATE for anything to constitute show content, let incredibly awful segments into the finished show. As an example of this, here is a word-for-word transcript of a tear-filled exchange on a recent show:
Fat Chick 1: “I trust nobody. I trust…nobody.”
Fat Chick 2: “I hope you truly don’t mean that…you trust nobody.”
Fat Chick 3: “Yeah. I hope you don’t mean that either.”
Fat Chick 1: “But…I have to assume that I can’t trust anybody, because that seems to be the common trend.”
(Boring interview segments)
Fat Chick 1: “This is my third time [on the elimination block] and the second time I’ve been specifically targeted. Like you don’t…nobody else understands the position I’m in right now. Like, we’ve all been up for elimination…
Undetermined Fat Chick: “I do. I understand.”
Fat Chick 1: “I know.”
(Boring interview segment)
Undetermined Fat Chick: “Okay. What do you want to say?”
(Sad piano music begins)
Fat Chick 1 (While crying): “I understand. Like I’m not a moron, I understand. I understand who I can and who I can’t trust, but you don’t understand. Nobody in this room understands…that I can’t trust anyone fully. I can trust you 90% but that’s the best I can give you. That’s it!”
Fat Chick 2: “You need to trust. You need to trust.”
Trainer Chick: “Everyone in this room has been true to their word.”
Fat Chick 1: “I know that, but…”
Fat Chick 2: “You HAVE to trust that.”
(Music fades scene out)
This segment goes on for FOUR MINUTES. As I sat through it, I felt very bad for myself that I endured it, but I felt even worse for the people making this show, who saw this footage and realized that IT WAS THE BEST THEY HAD TO WORK WITH! I can only imagine how great the stuff was that didn’t make it into the final cut.
It seems clear to me that in reality television, the show can either be uplifting, or it can be universally entertaining, but never both. With a lackluster premise leading to a miniscule payoff, The Biggest Loser is a false hit, watched only by people who get a perverse thrill from bad television, or from people who feel they should like its message. These are the people who decry the Fox Network as a tool of the devil. And if that’s the case, then this is prove positive that sometimes, the devil really does have more fun.