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.

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