Within minutes of the first workout of the first episode of this, the fourteenth season of The Biggest Loser, the camera fades to red and cuts to a commercial as Jackson, a gay bespectacled boy from Layton, Utah, collapses and lies gurgling at the foot of a treadmill. The scene is the first of an onslaught. The camera constantly indulges our worst impulses, lingering on oversized stomachs, and then cutting between contestants leaning over the purple and yellow equipment provided by Planet Fitness, eyes tumescent, crying and vomiting into blue buckets thoughtfully set aside by the PAs. It requires intestinal fortitude to watch the show, which is itself a bloated production, standing at an exhausting two hours on television.
Once you have watched one season of The Biggest Loser, you have seen them all. In fact, even individual episodes do not vary much from one to the next. Broadly speaking, the show is about losing weight, which under the constraints of reality television translates into a particular kind of blunt sadism. The show is the most American of shows in that it offers the promise of self-redemption in simple, chewable bites. It is like the junk food it maligns; it is bad for you and totally addictive.
In every episode we are invited to meet the contestants before they came to “the ranch” (what they call the training facility where they eat, sleep, and workout): the selves they came here to lose. Gina, a bankruptcy lawyer and mother of two, talks about having a “great life, great career, and great family. The weight has taken over all the good things in my life.” She says this over footage of her at her kitchen counter, surrounded by smoked meats, chewing mac and cheese in slow motion.
This separation between the “old” self and the “true” self is a crucial distinction that the show hinges upon. Every contestant’s elimination is an opportunity to learn this lesson of self-transformation. Even from the first episode, the eliminated contestant says, “The real me was there. I’ve been burying him for so long.” The trainers are the clairvoyants who can truly “see” them for who they are. “This is abuse!” screams Jillian Michaels, the militant trainer. “I demand them to be the people I know they can be!” Bob Harper, the kinder, gentler trainer, echoes the same sentiment in more uplifting terms, “I cannot wait until you see yourself through my eyes.”
Who are they supposed to become? The winner of this season will have the opportunity to appear in an ad for Subway alongside Jared Fogle, the “Subway guy” who became a spokesperson for the brand after he lost a considerable amount of weight on a self-initiated Subway diet. Ali Vincent, the Season 5 winner, graces plastic tubs of The Biggest Loser whey protein powder. When the contestants went home for two weeks, they had to lead a workout for their community, as a way to peddle this season’s theme: Challenge America. They are perky, motivational speakers who can induce others to find their inner selves, or at the very least, buy a Biggest Loser cookbook.
The weight of course, is just a metaphor, a manifestation of trauma. In this way, the trainers are like therapists; they use words like “check in” and “process.” Jillian Michaels’ preferred method is to break the contestants down before building them back up. She is both hard and soft, which makes for good television, and has, not inconsequentially, allowed her to build a substantial brand for herself. This season, Jillian keeps ragging on one contestant, Jeff. He is losing weight, but she suspects that he is holding back. She senses a block. After a particularly grueling workout, she sits down in his room and has a heart-to-heart. She asks him to identify a turning point in his life. Jeff tells her that when he was seventeen, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer on Christmas Eve and passed away six weeks later. Before he died, his father told him to take care of his family. Jeff felt he was “set up to fail” at the one task he was given. So he gained weight.
She looks at him. Her eyes say, Aha! Her voice goes soft. “We spend so much of our lives repeating destructive patterns, and the reason we do is because we keep waiting for a different outcome,” she says in a camera confessional. “Here’s the thing: it doesn’t change. You change.”
This happens almost every episode, every season, these mini-epiphanies. Stories are littered with deceased spouses, fathers and mothers who didn’t love you, and crippling self-defeatism and depression. They are unique and yet they are the same, because they are all processed through the same reality television sausage grinder. Still, somewhere within the flattening of individual experience is something unmistakably poignant—and unmistakably American. After all, who among us has not felt that there was a better, stronger, more beautiful and more whole version of ourselves lurking beneath our self-doubts and vices and foibles? And that the ability to access this self is entirely within our own control, that if we simply had a little more faith, more will power, more time, we could be the person we were meant to be?
The fact that we keep watching the show is indicative of how deeply ingrained this story is within our cultural DNA. Watching The Biggest Loser is like taking a drug. It feels good; it makes us forget. We forget how this story of individual exceptionalism distorts reality. Or perhaps more to the point: we can understand how patently untrue this all is, how it is a project to turn us from bad consumers who eat fast food to good consumers who can wear nice clothes, but that it does not make the story any less compelling; it stirs some part of us we cannot name that says yes, I can. It is here, at its most mendacious, when The Biggest Loser is also its most inspirational.
In the biggest change this season, The Biggest Loser has three “kid ambassadors”—Lindsay, 13, Sunny, 16, and Biingo, 13—who are losing weight to become inspirational models in the “fight against childhood obesity.” In the penultimate episode, the kids and the remaining contestants watch videos of themselves at the start of their “journey.” Their old selves tell their new selves to never ever be this person again. To look at him with shame. In the last challenge, the contestants drag a sled up a hill where they put the weight that they lost at different checkpoints, Week 10, Week 9, Week 8, until they are carrying all the weight they had lost. They do a variation of this every season to remind the contestants just how far they have come.
The season finale will air in front of a live audience. All of the contestants will be sleek and toned in nice clothes. They will step proudly onto the scale, the final arbiter that determines, finally, who has won this game. Everyone will smile, because they are all winners, but as with all things in America, there can only be one true winner—the one who wins a quarter of a million dollars. She will smile the biggest because she will represent the purest distillation of the American dream: skinny and rich.