In defense of quitters: The Biggest Loser mutiny is the greatest thing ever on the show

The Biggest Loser: No Excuses contestant walk-out that occurred about two months ago was broadcast Tuesday night, and two of the five remaining cast members, Buddy Shuh and Mark Cornelison, ended up quitting the show. I haven’t watched the show in years, but I still feel comfortable saying that their protest gave the NBC series its best episode ever, and offered a great illustration of why it’s okay to quit a reality TV competition.

The fourth wall was gone as the episode started, with camera operators filming each other searching for contestants who were refusing to wear their mics. It was thrilling in its strangeness, although it was obviously edited for drama. Supervising producer Joel Relampagos was followed down the hall to Bob Harper’s dressing room, where he broke the news to Bob Harper, who said, “That absolutely makes no sense whatsoever.” Bob is a terrible actor, by the way.

Executive producer Todd Lubin was shown talking to contestants outside, with production equipment and crew all around, saying, “You’re quitting the show because you think it’s unfair” and “legal will come out and tell you what the procedure is.” But first, the trainers confronted them after Bob pretended to tell trainer Dolvett Quince the news.

What followed was ridiculously awesome. It was the highlight of the episode–and the part I wanted to watch for an entire hour: the five sitting in solidarity, barely willing to talk. Bob asked “Kim, what’s going on?” Kim said, “It doesn’t involve you.” Bob’s moronic reply was, “Kim, you have to say something.”

No, Bob, she doesn’t, and she also doesn’t have to stay on the show and help you pimp out whatever advertiser has paid for your services this week. Buddy said, “We’re doing this our way.” Dolvett told them, “I’m not finished with you,” and Mark said, “This is not about you two. This is not about us atacking you two.”

Alison Sweeney showed up with Jeff Friedman, “a lawyer who represents the show,” and then did something obnoxious but smart: split the group up to “one on one, explain your decision.” Yeah, right. In other words, break up the group to appeal to them individually.

The lawyer told Jeremy, “you don’t want to be controlled by producers who work on the show” but added, “obviously when you come on a show like this you know…” Jeremy told him, “For me it’s just, this isa matter of right and wrong, and in my heart, I feel like this is wrong.” The lawyer said that the twist was in the contract, and read passages from it, insisting that “that was upfront for everybody … it seems unfair to us” for you to leave.

Jeremy argued back that the contract wasn’t definitive, and having read several reality TV contracts (read them: Survivor, Big Brother, or The Real World), I’m pretty sure there was no cut and dry sentence that said explicitly that contestants would be brought back at the final four stage. It probably said something about how producers can do whatever they want, including giving eliminated contestants a second chance.

Alison Sweeny made arguments to other contestants, at one point citing everything the contestants get from the show and adding, “The exchange is that you help us inspire people at home and that’s the trade out, and now it seems like you’re not willing to keep up your end of the bargain.”

Oh, PLEASE. It’s unquestionable that the contestants on this show benefit from the show in significant ways; the finale and its transformations prove that. But stop with the sanctimonious “your end of the bargain” bullshit. The network and producers use contestants to make a TV show and make money, period.

I really, really wanted to see what would have happened had all five left, but only two did: Mark and Buddy. Mark said, “I’m just at a point where I’m done” and “I know this isn’t going to be popular, but it’s my decision.” Buddy said, “I just don’t like one of the game’s rules and for that I won’t play that week’s game. … I don’t feel like a quitter, though I’m quitting the show.”

Bob said in an interview, “These guys just did not like this twist and turn at the one yard line.” Yes, and that’s what’s so great: They said no.

I know we give quitters a lot of shit, especially on Survivor, but it’s impressive for someone to acknowledge that they made a mistake. And it is very, very different to watch a show on your couch and think “I can do that” and then be faced with the realities of TV production, the elements of the series, and the interpersonal drama and game play.

And in this case, it’s perfectly legitimate for the contestants to say, “I’m not okay being fucked with this way. So go fuck yourselves.” Far too many reality show producers treat their contestants like they are puppets to be manipulated. That may not have been the case here, since bringing people back isn’t that shocking or outrageous, and if that’s really all these five were angry about, it doesn’t seem that bad. Asked to be an unpaid whore for chewing gum: that’s why you walk out.

Still, reality TV isn’t The Hunger Games (yet), and cast members should push back when they feel like they’re being asked to cross a line, whether that’s when they’re asked to reenact scenes or say something they wouldn’t normally say or do something they don’t want to do. And they should be–and are, regardless of what some potentially indefensible contract says–free to leave if the reality of the show doesn’t line up with what they expected.

That said, I really appreciate that the producers chose to include those conversations–and the whole mutiny thing. Other shows might have just had the host come out and say two people quit and leave it at that. So bravo for transparency. And while, again, I haven’t really watched the show in years for more than a few seconds at a time, I’ve been hearing anecdotal remarks that this season has been particularly weak, especially with its casting and emphasis on drama. (The show made changes to its producers last summer.) But from the clips and this episode itself, the show at least looks significantly better than it used to: there seems to be more attention given to cinematography and editing.

Despite the transparency, there are still many unanswered questions, including why exactly the three changed their minds. How did the contestants find out about the impending twist? Did the producers promise them something to stay on? Did the lawyer’s intimidation work? And how long did this last in real time? Reports suggested the mutiny shut down production for days, even a week, but on TV it seemed like a few hours at most, and everything was fine the next day.

The rest of the episode was pretty standard: Outrageous product placement courtesy of chief whore Bob Harper, tears as the contestants watched footage of themselves, and a dragged-out weigh-in. The other contestants returned in the last few moments, and I’ll return to not watching The Biggest Loser.

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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.