I was settled down with a cup of tea and Downton Abbey on Sunday, so I didn't watch the season premiere of The Biggest Loser until last night, on DVR. My husband and I watched the premiere after dinner, took a couple of hours to do other things, and then tuned in a little after 8 to watch Part 2. Our favorite way to watch TBL is to DVR it and start watching it about half an hour after it starts, so that we can finish watching it around 10 with a minimum of commercial interruptions. As a result of the way I watched it, please forgive me if I jumble things up a bit between the two episodes.
As always, this is not going to be a total recap of what happened (you can find that on NBC's site), but more of a commentary and critique. I try to keep spoilers to a minimum but I can't guarantee a completely spoiler-free commentary. I heard the show has a new producer, and I would have to say that the show started off a little uneven.
I liked the way the premiere started off, with the big crowd scene and people being pulled from the crowd to compete. It gave some of the excitement of the finale to that first episode. We got a few stories along the way of contestants, which made it even more interesting. Jackson's story of growing up getting bullied for being gay in Utah was touching. This is the first time, I think, that someone has explicitly "come out" on TBL, though there were a few hints in other seasons and I always wondered about certain contestants.
The story that gave me a little bit of pause was TC's. He was in a bad car accident with his son, and because he was so large, his seat broke and he ended up crashing into his son, who was in a carseat behind him. He fractured his son's skull and broke his eye socket. I had never thought about this possibility, and it seems that given the realities of our heavier population, car manufacturers might need to publish safe weight limits for adult car seats. As a result of this ordeal, TC promised his son that he would lose weight... but as far as we can tell from the premiere, his sole plan for losing the weight was getting on TBL. That, to me, seems like planning for your retirement only by buying Lotto tickets. If he did try other things, we could have easily been told that, but instead we were left with the impression that for two years, his sole plan was getting on this show. As you will see later in this review, my biggest issue with the show this season is that they don't seem to be doing a great job telling a story.
The most controversial aspect of this premiere was seeing how they would handle bringing kids on the show. Yoni Freedhof has published several well-reasoned articles criticizing the show for this choice, including one with comments from former contestants. I do tend to agree with Ken that these kids may already be getting picked on, and that it is up to the show to keep the kids as safe as possible. In these first two episodes, I thought the kids were handled well. First, casting found three very charismatic kids of different ages. Sunny, at 17, is the oldest, and there are two 13-year-olds, Lindsay and Noah, who calls himself Bingo. In all the segments with the kids, the trainers are warm and understanding and focus on healthy eating and fun activities. There are no "last chance" workouts, no eliminations, no weigh-ins. The kids don't live on the ranch, they are home with their parents and just visit the show. The first challenge involved the kids, and put them in the fun position of getting to boss the adult contestants around. That challenge involved the adults wading around in a sea of plastic balls looking for letters to spell out "The Biggest Loser" with direction from the kids, who were suspended in a harness overhead. The kids seemed to be having fun. The inherent problem with having the kids on the show is that they continually are referred to as "obese," which might be true, but there is so much social stigma attached to that word that no matter how well things are handled that it seems unkind. The other issue is their lack of maturity -- Lindsay seemed very upset when she fell behind during the run in "The Biggest Loser Fitness Test," and since she already said she was sensitive about always being last, being last on national television probably didn't help things.
During the premiere, we saw a lot of Jillian screaming, without a lot of explanation of why she is so upset. If I had never seen the show before and were to base my opinion of Jillian only on this episode, I would think she was a psychopath. There are hints of bad behavior from contestants -- TC, for example, takes a dive off the treadmill only 3 minutes into the workout, which seems more like a ploy for attention than an actual fall. He proceeds to fall off three or four more times, and again, it seems more like he is trying to get airtime more than that he is actually struggling -- we don't see him stumbling or seeming particularly tired before he falls. Then there was Nikki, a contestant who said she struggled with bulimia before coming on the show. I can't understand how or why she made it through casting with a serious psychological issue like that, other than that she is a pretty blonde who might have made a good "after." She seems reluctant to work hard, and Jillian screams at her to the point that she quits the show during the first workout. I suspect there was more to this story, but we didn't see it. Jillian comes across as unreasonable and nasty in this premiere. She seems to have no patience with her contestants -- maybe she was away from the show for long enough to forget how scared the contestants always are during the first workout.
In the second episode, we see more of the same unevenness that bothered me during the premiere. On the positive side, Jillian comes back as a nicer version of herself. She actually asks her small team what she can do to help them, and they ask, surprise, surprise, for a little less yelling. We also get to see a little more of Bob and Dolvett. Interestingly, each trainer has been allowed to set up his or her own special workout space, but it would have been helpful to have them explain why they chose the equipment they did or why Bob brought along a whole bunch of gorgeous athletes to populate his gym.
The challenge segment in the second show was fun. Unlike some of the inane challenges that we have seen over the years where contestants are encouraged to gang up on each other or are just competing to be the last left holding onto some object, they did an NFL-inspired speed, strength, and agility workout. This is the kind of challenge I enjoy watching, because it is the kind of thing I would want to get out and try myself.
Other parts of the show were not as great, though. One of my favorite segments has always been Dr. H. talking to the contestants about the health problems they have, but in episode two, again, the editing was terrible. Usually we get the doctor explaining a few different obesity-related conditions to contestants who have them and giving them a sense of how serious they are. This time, we get all of the scare tactics with not much explanation of what any of it means. We find out that Jackson stops breathing (I am guessing sleep apnea, but it's hard to be sure), Michael's arteries in his neck are like a 70-year-old's (probably high cholesterol, but again, who knows?) and Gina has seriously high blood sugar (did she know she had diabetes?) that isn't likely to be controlled well by medicine alone, but could be cured by lifestyle interventions. This is a segment that could be informative and maybe even get some viewers to the doctor's office if handled right, but this time it just seemed sensationalized.
The big question with this show is whether it wants to be a typical reality TV show where contestants are tortured for the viewers' amusement or whether we are going to be presented with contestants who have a story that we can identify with and who experience transformation that we can enjoy cheering for. I am hoping that in later episodes, we will get a little more of the story and a little less screaming and vomiting, and a lot less repetition. I don't know why the show repeats so many scenes and clips while leaving the interesting stuff out. I'd like to know more about the ex-football player, or the cop, or the special ed teacher. I don't need to see the same preview clip of Bob yelling at the blonde woman 3 times. As interesting as Jackson's story is, I don't need to see the exact same produced clip used during his intro in the premiere repeated in the second episode. And I never, never, never need to see a segment from a contestant's audition tape where she appears in only a bra and somewhat transparent white underwear.
Come on, producers. You have great material here. Do more with it.