Why all the drama, Biggest Loser?

19 Apr
April 19, 2012

For the record, Bob was wrong when he said eliminated players have been coming back since the beginning. The first time that happened on American soil was season three with the crew you see above (I’m the tall one in the middle!). Australia’s version of Biggest Loser actually did it first the year before – Bob and Jillian were trainers there as well, so he can get a pass for feeling like he’s been seeing this happen forever. Although I did find it amusing that he was acting like it was no big deal – back in season three, he was furious and kind of a jerk over the whole thing!

Anyway, all the drama this season has me thinking about it again, and I’ve seen a lot of comments from people who are mystified by the reactions by the ranch cast, don’t understand why they would react that way, etc. Here are some of my disorganized thoughts on eliminated players returning and why viewers, eliminated cast, and ranch cast have the reactions they do …

First, the viewers.

Here is the truth: people love an underdog. We identify with them. We root for them. We love to see them overcome extreme odds and beat the favorites. It’s why movies like Rocky, Rudy, Cool Runnings, and just about every other sports movie made does well. When it comes to Biggest Loser, we feel awful for the eliminated contestants – especially if it happens on the first day. We love seeing them come back and win – it’s inspiring, it’s encouraging, and honestly, they’re typically the ones we identify with in a lot of ways, especially if as a viewer you’re wishing you could be on the show – you just get it in your gut why they are trying so hard to get that spot back. And if you’re identifying with the underdog, you’re naturally going to be furious with the people slamming them or trying to keep them out.

I don’t think Biggest Loser realized that at first. It’s part of the reason why I think they’ve never done something like they did in my season again; they thought the ranch cast would be the heroes and the at home contestants would be a fun novelty. Instead, the online response was overwhelmingly in support of the home contenders and against the ranchers! People felt so bad for us, and they wanted us to succeed – meanwhile, they were turned off by all the game play on the ranch. Not a great business model if the bulk of the financial investment and risk is centered around the 14 chosen for the ranch. People identified with us, felt the pain of us being rejected on the first day of the ranch, and felt enraged when it felt like insult was added to injury when we returned to the ranch only to be angrily and bitterly welcomed with comments from the ranchers along the lines of the first priority being to vote us off, it didn’t seem fair, and so on.

The Eliminated.

Another surprising thing about eliminating players? For some, it is like rocket fuel. It turns out extended time on the ranch is NOT necessary for weight loss. Motivation is necessary. Over and over, from season to season, we have seen contestants eliminated in the first weeks of the show (or the first day in my case!), go home and disappear … only to return not only thinner, but ahead of the cast on the ranch both in percentage and weight lost. This was genuinely shocking to the producers at first; how could this be possible?

I can’t speak for every eliminated contestant, but as someone who did return without having the trainers or gym once, and yet still ahead of everyone on the ranch in percentage loss and pounds loss, here’s what I know: I was ticked. That rejection, being sent home, gave me a laser focus. While they were distracted by game play, challenges, unknown schedules, being jerked around by production staff and a thousand other things, all I thought about was getting my spot back on the ranch and showing everyone they were wrong for discounting me. I exercised at the gym until my feet bled, I could hardly move for weeks because of my sore muscles, a number of times I passed out or almost passed out – all because I was so determined to get back. That’s why it never surprises me to see eliminated contestants, or even eliminated teams (black team, season four) come back and dominate. It takes the competitive edge to another level.

The Ranch Contestants.

Let’s be real, in this whole discussion (actually, monologue), these are the ones who kind of get the raw end of the deal. In what other competition can you play by the rules, eliminate someone and then have them show up again rested, focused, and having another shot at the prize while you’re worn down, fried and emotionally drained? And by the way, their arrival will be timed by behind the scenes people to be a moment most shocking and difficult for you because they’re hoping you’ll lose it on camera so they can have a controversial episode that will make fans react (reread the viewers portion if you’ve forgotten!). This may sound funny from a guy who got twice as many episodes as he would have because of the whole returning contestants thing, but I think I get it. I knew way back in season three that our return would upset ranchers simply because I knew I would be upset by it. Here are some of the factors that shape their reactions …

  • It prolongs the game. The truth is, once someone has been at the ranch for months … they don’t need the ranch. People have pulled off incredible results after only a few days with the trainers and nutritionists. Once you’ve learned the lessons, you can do it. Months in, it’s about the game play and the prize. For every returning contestant, it means it will be that much longer before the eventual winner can see their  family again. And with weeks sometimes taking longer than seven days to film, bringing back a couple contestants means anywhere from 2-3 weeks more completely cut off from family. That’s draining and a shock to the system – especially if you’ve been counting down to seeing your kids after being away for months. On my season, Bobby came and apologized to us later saying, ‘all I was thinking when I saw you was, I thought we had two weeks left and now we have four.’
  • Survivor. Being on the ranch is HARD. It is physically, emotionally and mentally draining. There is a reason why former contestants don’t recommend their loved ones go on the show – it’s not what anyone expects. For those who have spent day after day, month after month, surviving that environment, lasting through elimination after elimination, it is really hard to see someone else get a shot at the prize without enduring the environment.
  • The unknown. It is a game show. Just like Apprentice, Survivor, Wheel of Fortune, Biggest Loser is first and foremost a game show. After a few weeks on the ranch, everyone knows each other, what to expect, and how things will probably go. We don’t like change. And the cast is generally a lot of type A personalities who want control and have lost it. Bringing someone new in to the mix completely changes everything and causes all types of chaos. When you’re already on the emotional edge, this feels even more dramatic.
  • Intimidation. How would you feel if you had been training with Bob for two or three months, killing yourself, thinking you’re winning the game and dominating the competition only to have somebody show up that you haven’t seen in months, you haven’t bonded with, and by all rights (in your mind) should be way behind because they don’t have the freedom to just focus on weight loss … only to have them hop on the scale and reenter the competition at the top of the pack? Part of the reaction we see is a result of the intimidation coming from thinking you have all the competition figured out only to have a new front leader added to the mix who is rested, strong, and mentally fresh.
  • Jealousy. This is the biggest one in a lot of ways. Most people sign up for Biggest Loser because they honestly believe they just can’t do it at home on their own – I was one of those people. They willingly give up contact with their family, friends, they turn over their cell phones, get cut off from mail, media, TV, and really the outside world. They allow people half their age to shuttle them around like cattle, treat them like a commodity, manipulate their emotions daily, all for the sake of losing weight they thought they couldn’t do on their own. Only to have someone show up, ready to compete for the big prize, while also having had the time home immersed with everything they have given up. That was one of the questions that infuriated Bob back in my season from the ranchers – ‘why did we give up everything to be here when they stayed at home and are beating us?’ It is brutal to realize you could have had it all – the game, your family, your world, and still lose the weight.

Ultimately, I think all the reactions are okay. It makes sense to me. I don’t like when one group lashes out at another group (viewer to rancher, rancher to eliminated, etc) because it feels like the wrong target for the animosity. The reality is, the show intentionally creates an environment for this to happen. They want the viewers worked up because that’s good for ratings. They want the contestants exploding because that’s good TV. Most reality shows keep the alcohol constantly stocked because it makes for less inhibited contestants. Biggest Loser can’t do that – too many calories, so they create drama other ways.

So at the end of the day, as a former eliminated contestant that got a less than enthusiastic reception at the ranch (watch season 3, episode 8 on Netflix if you’re curious), I think it would be a lot better to take a step back and look at the bigger context before coming to any conclusions about someone.

7 replies
  1. Tammy says:

    First of all, The biggest is FIRST AND FOREMEOST a WEIGHT-LOSS show to educate obese/overweight persons how to exercise and eat properly!! Once it reaches the final 3, then and ONLY then is it a game show!!! The main focus for TBL is WEIGHT LOSS AND GETTING HEALTHY!

  2. S says:

    I have read a multitude of conversations regarding BL13. Your comments really clarified alot regarding the reactions of people re: the walk out and the drama shown on this "reality" show. I have sat back and gained weight while watching the show, somehow hoping that I could get on the show and lose weight…. but honestly, now I realize, yes it is possible for me to lose weight. I just have to get up and do it. I just have to walk in His Grace…

    Thank you for bringing me clarity about Biggest Loser. Your insights were well thought out and priceless!!

  3. Renny M says:

    In an earlier blog post, you mentioned that most BL would-be contestants are so heartsick and desperate that they would sign ANYTHING producers put in front of them if it meant they would be on the show. I think anyone who has ever been significantly overweight, or has loved someone who is morbidly obese, can understand that….in the beginning of the competition, most really are focused on their individual weight loss. I have no doubt that this show has saved lives.

    What sickens me are the conspiracies among contestants to send home those who appear to truly need to stay at the ranch (though I agree sometimes that person learns later they CAN actually do it on their own). I made a mental exception for Sam Palau because so many contestants in his season cited his work ethic in the gym as a motivating factor for them, but for the most part, I think once you get near your goal weight, you should step aside for others who aren't nearly there. Many contestants have done this in past seasons, but BL13 seemed to be about cliques and back-stabbing almost from the beginning (though some contestants like Mark worked hard to change their individual edits once they got back from the home break with the knowledge that America hated them.)

    I have read that the new production company was a difficult transition for contestants. I can't speak to that, but have no problem saying I personally hated their drama-first edit….for much of the season, I felt like I was watching Housewives of Biggest Loser Ranch rather than my favorite inspirational show. That said, I don't know that I can recall so many phone calls home and visits home as contestants had this season. I'd always read in the past that being on the ranch meant total isolation, but that didn't seem to be the case for this group. Maybe too much family contact makes it worse on people, I don't know. That certainly seemed to be true in Chris's case.

    Perhaps this was the perfect storm of nasty people or it really was just the editing. I can only say this season was tremendously hard to watch …. the only person I was pulling for in the final half of the season was Buddy, who seemed to act like a decently-raised individual, and now he's gone. I'd be willing to bet this final twist was the direct result of the new production team getting a little too much feedback about how detested most of their finalists were. Sort of ironic that the twist which may have been planned to Make America Happy just ticked the contestants off. But then, these folks never seemed to be the glass-half-full type anyway.

    Can't imagine that we will be seeing these contestants on future seasons or on the motivational speaker circuit. Which is fine by me.

  4. Carol Anne says:

    <blockquote cite="#commentbody-48073">

    Renny M :

    Can’t imagine that we will be seeing these contestants on future seasons or on the motivational speaker circuit. Which is fine by me.

    Amen to THAT Renny!

    In contrast, we need go back only as far as Olivia and Hannah (Season 11).

    These girls are out on the circuit every day (today they were at the Mid Mo Women's weekend in St Louis), inspiring people, running half-marathons (Olivia just completed one), etc. What a startling contrast to this season's group. They only thing they've inspired is our distaste.

    Now there's an unhappy "reality" check for the producers….

  5. Matthew McNutt says:

    @Tammy

    I know people want to believe the show is first and foremost a health show, and that is how it is marketed. Don't get me wrong, I love the show and if I were to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat. But I don't think there are any of the several hundred Biggest Loser alumni from the 13 seasons who think it's actually first and foremost a health show. From the moment you start meeting with producers, it's quickly evident that it is first and foremost a money making form of entertainment whose tool for the ratings is inspirational weight loss stories. There are a number of things behind the scenes that would be handled dramatically differently if health was the actual priority.

  6. Matthew McNutt says:

    There were some new details revealed in a recent interview with the producer on camera; you can find it here: http://matthewmcnutt.com/?p=3785

  7. Todd says:

    @Carol Anne

    I think you are appreciating Matthew's message, but I don't know if you have taken the full measure of it. It seems Matthew has clarified even more since your post, so this point may be moot now for you but even if it is, perhaps it will enlighten others.

    You mentioned in another post how Olivia and Hannah managed to get through the same grinding challenge that Mark and Buddy did without dishonoring the Lord and that you had to believe these two pastors could have as well. The thing that Matthew is pointing out is that it wouldn't matter if it was Mother Teresa on the show. They are going to write the story the way that will get more viewers and it takes VERY little effort to alter reality.

    Olivia and Hannah were (at least from what was portrayed) amazing sweethearts that captured America's hearts. I'm sure with the cameras rolling as much as they were, there were probably times when they "conducted themselves in a manner that was not honoring to the Lord" (none of us is perfect yet), but why on earth would the producers tarnish the image that kept millions of people eager to watch next week to cheer them on? So it seems clear based on the practices that have been discussed, they were the beneficiaries of positive editing. Don't get me wrong, I loved them on the season and bet they are great role-models, but again the point is there was no incentive to portray them as "bad".

    Mark and Buddy on the other hand are coming in as pastors. I would not have expected that to put a target on their backs, but this experience has opened my eyes to a lot of things to which I ALMOST wish I was still blissfully ignorant. What would be more scandalous, evoke more outrage and stir up America to talk about the show more than "bad" pastors? Especially with Matthew's point about the production company possibly coming in with a slant towards drama from their other productions, it seems very reasonable that the producers would do what it took to make Mark and Buddy look bad to create a frenzy of hype.

    If they were coming forward defending their behavior or admitting they made a mistake I would accept the portrayal as "real". However, they clearly aren't and they are also making it clear that if they could, they would love to set the story straight.

    If I had honored the Lord, but had been falsely portrayed, I'm not sure what would hurt most: 1) reading the posts of mockers that write anything hateful, 2) reading the posts of those said they were fans until I became so selfish or 3) reading the posts of fellow Christians that say what a horrible witness I was. In all three cases, it would be due to ignorance, but the last one would probably sting the most. Even if I had been selfish, I would hope to find gentle correction and words of encouragement from my brothers and sisters in Christ rather than more pointing fingers.

    I'm pretty sure you, me, Mark, Buddy and Matthew all know that one day the righteous judge will sort out this whole mess and His judgment is the only one that matters. I know I'm not perfect. When my "inner man" wants to rip into the people that post the truly ugly things, that's when I'm reminded of God's patience with me and I suppose it's my hope that you or whoever reads this would also be reminded that we're all still flawed and need to bear with each other and offer the forgiveness we've freely received.

    Okay. Sorry for such a long post. I'm shocked at how emotionally invested I've become in this whole ordeal. I don't know Mark personally all that well, but because I have been such a huge fan of the show and have seen the fruits of his ministry, I'm indignant at the "reality" of reality TV and can't help but defend him when he can't defend himself. Sorry. I really am getting off the soapbox now. (c;

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