Sunday, October 4, 2009


I have a really complicated relationship with The Biggest Loser. On its face, the premise of the show is somewhat noble -- helping the morbidly obese regain control of their lives. There is also the added benefit that viewers are inspired to take control of their own weight issues.

However, this nobility encounters conflict since this is an elimination based reality show. This has been highlighted in this past week's episode...

Despite its title, The Biggest Loser is not a meritocracy. It is on finale night, but until the final weigh-in there is strategery afoot throughout the process. As someone who has struggled with weight issues, I have come to learn that extrinsic rewards are not the way to achieve long-term success. You need to have an intrinsic desire to succeed and keep the weight off. I love watching the contestants flip out with excitement when they lose double digits in a single weigh-in, but then when it gets to voting off a contestant the discussion turns into who is perceived as a "threat". What does that even mean in this context? The only definition that seems to apply is "this person has a greater intrinsic drive than me and therefore does not require the extrinsic reward that is my motivation."

I didn't start watching this season until my friend KDT tweeted: "I hate to feel this emotionally involved in The Biggest Loser... but I am." We then proceeded to have the following conversation about the contestant Tracey:

K: are you watching? I can't believe Trac(y/i/ie/ee) would do this to Coach Mo!
M: I just started, as soon as I read your tweet. There is nothing competing against it on Tuesdays. Help me.....
K: also, she totally shot herself in the foot. Ugh.
M: She does have crazy eyes...awesome. [...] She meaning Traceeee and Jillian.
K: indeed, sir. indeed.

From what I gathered from the repetitive nature of the two-hour episode (aside: really, NBC?) the theme for this week was "choices". Tracey chose to give up access to trainers for both her and her partner Mo to get a two-pound advantage at the weigh-in. Later, there was a temptation challenge involving cupcakes. Whichever contestant ate the most cupcakes in ten minutes would get to choose one person on each team to be that teams sole representative at the weigh-in. At this point meritocracy only applied to the green team who won this week's immunity challenge.

At the weigh-in, Tracey selected the contestants who were generally less successful during workouts for the week, including people that she assured she would not select. Frankly, the type of gameplay exhibited here is a rare occurrence on reality TV. The only other example that jumps to mind is Wendy Pepper from the first season of Project Runway -- utilizing whatever advantage or foothold becomes available because there is no talent or ability to hang their hat on. It is fascinating from a reality television drama perspective, but the consequences in this case go beyond winning a talent show. The people who are successful at achieving the aims of the show lose the game while those who lose are the ones who prosper.

That doesn't seem right.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hank-y Panky

You saw the movie Memento, right? Fantastic film: I highly recommend it. For those who haven't seen it, the premise is that the main character is trying to solve the mystery of his wife's murder but he suffers from short-term memory loss.

Now, did you see the new Kelsey Grammer sitcom Hank on Wednesday? It is horrible. How bad? This afternoon I watched the pilot before my screenwriting class. In class today we watched Deliverance. There were more genuine laughs during that movie than during the 23 minutes I suffered through Hank.

What does Memento have to do with this?

Well, from what I could gather from the bad acting and clunky story (it is a pilot episode after all), Kelsey Grammer's character is perpetually a fish out of water. But not in the sense that the Beverly Hillbillies were fish out water -- they eventually adapted to their environment in certain ways. I mean that each scene revolved around Hank being discombobulated by the conditions of the scene. I think that could be an interesting concept, but that is not the premise of the show.

The premise is that Hank was ousted from the board of directors of some downsized New York company. For whatever reason he did not get a golden parachute, did not liquidate any of his assets, and for some reason is not able to get another job in the city. As a result he has to move his family down to Virginia near his brother. Sure, why not?

The thing is, Hank is only able to function in a corporate board room setting. For example, he instructs his wife to keep minutes at a family meeting. You know, The Simpsons stopped doing family meetings because none of the writers' families ever did family meetings and it seemed contrived. The family on this show felt the meeting was contrived and the (insane) laugh track makes the entire scene feel contrived.

The problems don't stop there. Due to their king size bed not fitting in the stairwell, Hank and his wife are stuck in a fire engine bed for the time being (yeah, I know). There were so many things that were just unsettling in this scene. First, there is zero chemistry between Hank and his wife. His complaint in the close quarters: "You're breathing on me." Unless halitosis or fire is involved, I don't think that is generally considered a bad thing, particularly if it is your spouse. Hank's wife (sorry, I don't remember her name and I am not watching it again) is also wearing earrings and what looks like a day-to-evening ensemble from Project Runway. As I tried to puzzle my way through the weird wardrobe selection, the couple spontaneously engages in a fit of passion. No organic catalyst whatsoever.

One of my friends in my program is doing a TV research project related to laugh tracks. I mentioned this show and he asked me how many episodes I think it will last. My answer: already at least half an episode longer than it should have. If only this could be erased from my short term memory.