Weight Watching

Two shows about formerly fat people.

BBC America deserves an award for the titles it presents in the documentary series BBC America Reveals. I don’t mean the programs, which are satisfactory explorations of sensational topics, but the actual titles, which are great specimens of egregious luridity—My Big Breasts and Me, My Small Breasts and I, My 100,000 Lovers, Sex Change Soldier, Brothers and Sisters in Love, Britain’s Youngest Grannies, and—steady yourself—Britain’s Worst Teeth. This month has brought Too Fat To Toddle, though that is something of a misnomer. The children profiled are past the toddling stage—or would be if their thighs weren’t so thick.

In common with the other installments of Reveals, the show traffics elements of newsmagazine alarmism, pop-anthropological enlightenment, and jubilant voyeurism. “One in four preschool children in the U.K. is overweight or obese,” the narrator says at the outset. “Unless the trend changes, our kids could become”—and here was a brief pause with the impact of a sustained drumroll—”too fat to toddle.” What followed tracked the work of a physician organizing a weight-loss clinic for the under-5 set. His patients included not-so-little Teagan, whose body-mass index “is literally off the scale”; who is seen winded after a half-block’s ride on her pretty pink kick scooter; to whom the score, dribbling desolately, shows no mercy. Making like Super Nanny, the good doctor involves the girls and her peers in some edifying games and teaches their parents about portion control and proper exercise. Scenes of confrontation and contrition flit past. Second-act setbacks add tension, as when Teagan, “faced with a potato a quarter of the size she used to get,” throws a tantrum at the dinner table. But this is a story of progress, and the children move from scooping cake into their faces by the serving spoon to nibbling cheerfully on fruit kebabs. The final shot sees Teagan in smiling possession of a helium balloon, its silhouette no longer quite so reminiscent of her own.

Good for her. But nothing like this import, with its pseudo-academic tone and veneer of educational programming, could cut it on network television in America. (Its closest peers air on the Discovery Channel’s TLC, which brings a clinical tone to such freak shows as I Eat 33,000 Calories a Day.) In America, the ideally successful obesity show would noisily feature the promise of salvation, the thrill of competition, and the power of positive thinking, with some sex appeal, product placement, and ritual humiliation thrown into the mix, plus a cathartic weep or two. Thus might we begin to account for the staying power of The Biggest Loser (NBC), which closed its sixth season on Tuesday night. I was new to the show and not in its target demo—and thus mostly passed those two hours with my mouth open, variously feeling stunned by the inspiring discipline of the contestants, gaping at the intolerable sluggishness of the proceedings, and working through half a pound of guacamole.

The host was Alison Sweeney, an actress whose standing as a three-time winner of Soap Opera Digest’s Outstanding Villainess honor belies her wholesome allure and nonthreatening cuteness. Sweeney explained that this latest go-round of The Biggest Loser had been a “families” edition featuring both parent-child teams and married couples—”those who were born to it versus those who were sworn to it.” They hadn’t competed as pairs; that device just enriched the narrative as the contestants first galumphed and then glided through the season’s trials. Prizes would go to individuals. Someone would win $100,000. Someone else would win “the Jell-O grand prize” of $250,000. I could have become eligible to win $10,000 just by putting the tortilla chips down long enough to send a text message. The crowd favorite seemed to be a North Carolinian named Ed, a professional chef. A taped profile showed him at work in the kitchen, battling temptation as a bowl of penne pasta called its warped siren song via sound effects.

The contestants glimmered with newfound vanity, the men striding the stage in trim trousers, the gals tarted up to a fine sheen. They looked good. How could they not? They had internalized the militancy of their personal trainers. They had sweated and strained as if aspiring Olympians, connived and quarreled as if they were on any another reality show. They had participated in challenges so baroque that they must have burned calories just trying to get their heads around them. Clicking through The Biggest Loser’s Web site, I cued up a recent episode and heard Sweeney explain the rules of a “1980s flashback” game: “Each of you will be holding on to a handle attached to a barrel filled with 50 percent of your body weight in water. I will ask a series of ‘80s trivia questions. If you answer correctly, you get to add water to another person’s barrel. …” The segment involved levers, pulleys, and, all too obviously, the female contestants wearing high bangs and side ponytails.

A little of that farcicality would have gone a long way on the finale, which was mostly dedicated to people stepping on a scale. That the scale itself was highly farcical—it sat atop a pedestal resembling a squat, neon-trimmed ziggurat—could not have mattered to hard-core viewers. We got a winner, a woman who’d dropped a bit more than 100 pounds in a bit more than 200 days. Confetti fell, people doubtlessly hopped on their computers to order Biggest Loser exercise DVDs, and America was a special place. However big our asses might get, our dreams of self-improvement will always be larger.