The fat of the land...

By Paul Flower on Jan 6, 12 05:41 PM

Blubber and blubbering - The Biggest Loser, ITV1 Tuesday 9pm

You'd think it'd be easy to escape the morbidly obese, after all they'd hardly likely to catch you even at a slow jogging pace. Should you be watching any prime-time TV however you'll find they're omnipresent; if it's not morbidly obese crime (the 74 stone babysitter, C4) then it's the morbidly obese trying to be less obese or perhaps less morbid.

This week saw the return of The Biggest Loser (ITV1), doubtlessly scheduled to coincide with most of us reaching our guiltiest and flabbiest ebb, reminding us of our resolutions and a nationwide desire to pull back from the seasonal excess. In some respects it was hard to know if they're telling us to stop before we get as bloated as these people or reassuring us that maybe we're not so bad after all.

There's no doubt that the participants in TBL should've moved from the sweet trolley to the salad bar a very long time ago. All ten have bodies that would shame the Michelin man and personalities that greatly belie the theory about fat people being jolly; so many tears were shed in the first programme that the contestants could've swam their way to fitness.

It's all about blubber and blubbering but in a glut of TV health programming and 'car-crash' obesity documentaries TBL differs in that it is also a reality competition; the contestants compete against each other for a cash prize. They also compete in pairs, probably more for moral support than to make us think about Tweedledum and Tweedledee (though this was inevitable).

In general the pairs are related - mother/daughter, father/daughter, sisters, etc. but there was also an odd smattering of friends including a boyfriend/girlfriend combo and one completely odd couple of young blokes who'd just been paired as they clearly had no friends or relatives brave enough to come on the telly with them.

There's a mix of regional accents including the obligatory Irish, Welsh and Geordie contestants, this is either pandering to the TV regions or poking fun at the least healthy parts of the UK. As with the format it leaves a sense of producers trying a bit too hard to tick too many boxes.

The format itself hasn't changed much - three super-fit 'trainer/mentors' crack the whip and make the competitors exercise more than they ever have while Davina McCall stands around looking supportive/sympathetic/concerned (delete when applicable). At the end of each week (condensed into the one-hour show) they're all weighed and the two couples with the lowest percentage weight loss are put up for eviction. The extra notch of cruelty is added with the non-losing participants voting on which of the two pairs to keep in the show.

As with last year one contestant failed to make it to the starting line, much less the finish. Consequently only one of the odd male couple (stubborn Sam who refused to be bullied) was evicted, the other reprieved to take the place of the missing victim.

In that respect only the mentor/trainers have changed with two new sadists drafted in. The first, Charlotte Ord, is a seemingly physical manifestation of idealized beauty and health. A woman who initially looks so perfect - from her flowing blonde locks to her perfectly straight and luminous teeth - that you imagine she may have been created in a laboratory. If TBL is trying to give the contestants something to aim at you suspect they've set the bar a little too high in this instance.

In her first appearance Char can't decide if she's the mother-hen or Cruella DeVille, one minute she'll have her arm around the contestant (not trying to squeeze the weight out of him) and the next she'll be screeching that he should try a bit harder, do more reps and do them a damn sight faster.

Ex-SAS man Rob Edmond has the most objectionable personality, cast in the predictable role of 'sergeant major-type' you can already be sure that he won't be doing any cajoling at least not while he still has a voice to yell and bark with. It'll be stick and stick with him, even if carrots are healthy. Naturally he seems to conform well to the cliché; screaming into the ear of deadweight contestant, beardy-Sam, he merely succeeds in annoying him rather than making him run any faster. Indeed the only running Sam appears to participate in is when he's two metres from the finish line and firmly in last place. It's hard to decide if the applause he gets from the other contestants is genuine or ironic.

It is left for Richard Callendar, the only returning 'trainer', to show elements of humanity. Like the others you think he may never have seen a cream cake in his life but at least he occasionally provides a shoulder to cry on, albeit a heavily-muscled one.

It's all too easy to mock although they clearly want us to empathise. It's very hard to learn much when the producers and editors are giving us a bear-baiting freak show. Yes, we'll inevitably choose and support our favourites but we'll never really know these people or understand how they became society's outcasts.

There's plenty of 'talking-head' footage of them discussing why they want to be thin (largely - no pun intended - it's for their family or to get a partner, or not to die too early) but precious little given to any psychological reasons why they got so fat in the first place. As a result it fails on the emotional level they seem so keen on to help us understand the real issues. It's very easy to say more exercise and less food equals losing weight but without tackling the psychological reasons it may be a lot of wasted effort; a sort of let's forget about the root causes and instead watch some fatties flailing around in a field.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions; the paving-slabs may not survive if this lot take to jogging on them. For all their protestations and over-expressed convictions you're already led to believe that it was laziness and over-eating that got them into this state and it may take more than Davina and her three bullies to get them out of it. Should they stage a rebellion mid-series you'd have to worry for the mentors, the only thing that'd save them being eaten alive is that we're all aware there'd be too much gristle.


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