Biggest Loser’s brand of sensationalism is getting worse as the series ages

Of NBC’s three current reality shows, its stand-by workhorse is The Biggest Loser, which debut its ninth season last night. While it once had special super-sized two-hour episodes, it now just fills all of NBC’s non-Leno prime-time every Tuesday night (even though there’s not enough content to fill two hours, so the episodes drag, spending an excruciating amount of everything but particularly on weigh-ins).

Filling those two hours, never mind making the show interesting for around 30 episodes a year, has increasingly strained its credibility as an uplifting, aspirational show. Its great theme song, “Proud” by Heather Small, asks, “What have you done today to make you feel proud?” For the producers, the answer is “not much at all,” because they’re producing a show that pretends to be more than the VH1ish series it actually is.

The dirtiest part of the series used to just be the temptation challenges, which mimicked real-life temptation (although in an extreme way), and the eliminations, which added a game component to add drama. Those were defensible, and I often defended them. But they’ve been joined by a lot of ugliness.

That was evident immediately last night, when the contestants had to weigh in for the first time in their hometowns, in public, which seemed like public humiliation more than anything else. Of course they’re about to go on TV to do the same thing, but as it was staged, it was just unnecessary.

Once they arrived at the ranch, two teams were immediately eliminated for coming in last in the first challenge, a 26.2-mile bike race. (Sidebar: The show needs to fucking stop with the marathon stuff. Besides its well-publicized cheating, it treats the marathon distance as if it’s some kind of massive obstacle that one can easily overcome with willpower but no training at all, which is absurd.) Anyway, the losing teams had to go immediately home, and sobbed in their limos until–unsurprisingly–Jillian and Bob surprised them they’ll come back in a month to compete for one team spot.

Ultimately, this was really stupid and counter-productive. Of course they can’t do the challenge: they’re obese and unhealthy and need to change their lives and that’s why they came to the show, which just rejected them for the very reason it allegedly cast them. And they haven’t done any training yet! After that disastrous race at the start of last season, didn’t it occur to anyone that starting with a massive physical challenge makes no sense at all? Besides, it’s just sensational drama to dump teams right away, because it crushes their dreams of learning how to lose weight and living in an isolated environment solely to squeeze out a couple seconds of entertainment for viewers.

Well, it’s not entertaining. Throw in Bob and Jillian’s constant need to one-up themselves and each other, and the endless product placement, which now overlaps (24 Hour Fitness provided these Body Bugs which will track the calories you burn as you walk to Subway with your Brita bottle, stopping first at the setting for the Wrigley’s commercial we’ll film and include in the show as if it was actual content instead of a super-awkward ad), and the show is just one big mess.

The Biggest Loser still gets away with its increasing nonsense because it’s well-constructed and looks good, and ultimately, it helps extremely overweight people lose weight through just diet and exercise. Their transformations are incredible, so we forget about all of the ugliness that preceded them. The end is all good, but let’s drop the pretense that what happens along the way isn’t little more than sensational crap.

The Biggest Loser 9: C

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.