I guess it only makes sense that, in our increasingly jumbo-sized society, someone would find a way to make extreme weight loss TV show fodder. There are two schools of thought on how best to make the insanely boring topic of eating right and exercising entertaining, both of them exemplified in prime-time shows: “Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition” and “The Biggest Loser.” While very different in their approaches, both are best enjoyed while slouching slack-jawed on the sofa eating Ben & Jerry’s. Just kidding. Sort of.

Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition

The Concept: This show (Mon. 10 p.m. EST on ABC) is in the vein of most self-help, inspirational TV. Trainer Chris Powell descends on one morbidly obese person in each episode, which follows their individual journey over the course of a year. In the beginning, Chris puts his victim/client/newfound friend through weight loss boot camp. They learn how to eat right and work out. And they work out a lot. Usually until they sob, at which point Powell demands, “WHAT IS MAKING YOU FEEL THIS WAY?” which is when said obese person admits they’ve been trying to bury some traumatic childhood incident under several hundred pounds of cheesecake and barbequed baby back ribs for years.
 
The breakthrough made and the (really, really) heavy lifting done, Powell moves on to his next case while the newly inspired obese person works on getting less obese and filming cheerful/sad video messages and making phone calls to Powell. At the end, we’re treated to a satisfying reveal (hopefully), lots of hugging and some slo-mo video set to heartwarming music. It’s a simple formula, and for the most part, it works.
 
The Obstacle: On a recent episode, though, Powell had his work cut out for him. At 26, Wally weighed 490 pounds thanks to a fast food addiction. I’d always thought fast food addiction was like being addicted to a TV show or expensive handbags, but Powell assures us that it’s not only a real thing, but as overwhelming as heroin addiction. I always suspected McDonald’s was putting something in the fries. Anyway, Wally, as smiling and mild mannered as he is, throws a (fittingly) enormous wrench into Powell’s feel good, take charge, anyone-can-do-it methodology.
 
While assuring Powell that he’s working hard and eating right, a video camera installed in the basement workout room Powell built for Wally suggests otherwise. When Powell finally meets with Wally to reward him for meeting his initial weight loss goal (a family trip to Disneyland), he can tell without having to whip out the freight scale that Wally hasn’t hit his latest weight loss goal. There’s yelling and cajoling and disappointment, which seems to get through to Wally. After he poops out during a 100 mile bike ride, he’s appropriately shamed and humbled. So, he’s back on track, right?
 
Maybe for a minute, or at least long enough for Powell to get back on a plane and out of sight. Then, Wally is back to lying and eating. And eating because he lied. Really, just lots of eating. His wife thinks he’s working out and she’s cut off his fast food budget (this is not so effective if he still has access to his bank account, dear), so he lies to her, too. Wally gains back more of the weight he lost. Clearly, we’re not getting our inspirational reveal in this episode.
 
Finally, Wally simply can’t deal with the guilt. He ponders suicide. And Powell realizes that this particular case can’t be treated with free workout equipment and a leafy greens. Wally is shipped off to rehab for compulsive eating, and Powell tries to take an otherwise lost episode as an opportunity to talk about compulsive eating and treatment and other stuff. He worries for Wally. Wally’s odds aren’t good, either. As much as he wants to stick around for his wife and young daughter, his inability to be scared straight doesn’t forecast a heck of a lot of longevity for him.
 
The End Result: What’s surprising is that this show doesn’t find more Wallys, truth told. While people blame extra weight (be in 20 pounds or 200) on lots of things (tough job/baby fat/bullies/metabolism/delicious cookies, etc.), the human mind is far craftier than we give it credit for. Even if the Wallys of the world do fight the good fight and reach their goals, often bad habits return and, one by one, the pounds creep back on once the cameras leave. But that isn’t exactly good TV, especially for anyone scarfing down ice cream in front of the tube instead of working out. But it’s hard to deny how compelling this modern twist on Horatio Alger is. Just as we want that inner tube around our midsections to disappear, we want these jumbo-sized people to slim down. After all, if they can drop 300 pounds, we should be able to lose 20, no sweat.
 
The Biggest Loser
 
The Concept: The NBC show takes the feel good makeover formula of “Extreme” and piles on layers of backbiting, product promotion and competitive game play like so many olives on a pizza.  While the result is just as addictive as “Extreme” (maybe not as addictive as fries, but close), it’s also more than a bit unsettling. Like eating an entire pizza in one setting. Look, it’s hard to avoid the food metaphors, okay?
 
Anyway, we’re invited to cheer on the obese people cast on the show, watch them bemoan their fat fates and tear up thinking about the wife/parents/children that they’ll leave behind if they expire. But this time they’re not just battling against fat; they’re battling against each other. If they only had to loose the most weight (or percentage of weight) to make it to the finish line, that would be fine. But the game is more complicated than that. They must vote one another out, “Survivor”-style, which often has more to do with sending home someone enthusiastic to shed pounds and more to do with keeping floaters to save your own skin. The contestants tearfully explain away their actions by insisting that, after so many years of living for other people, they’re finally fighting for themselves. So, throwing a teammate under the bus is now self-actualization? How convenient.
 
The Obstacle(s): What’s most disturbing about the show is the Temptation Challenge. In this extremely weird part of the game, the players are invited to a dinner where they must pick the most caloric things on the menu and consume them in their entirety – and whoever eats the most calories, instead of being beaten about the head, is presented with a reward. Seriously, who thought this was a good idea? Isn’t this a weight loss show? Instead, while some contestants strategically throw the challenge (good idea), others may gorge themselves silly, desperately trying to convince themselves that the weight they put on will be worth it. I’ve never seen people eat with such grim determination.
 
Another odd thing is when contestants are recruited to plug some item or another (dessert-flavored gum comes to mind). They share their “discovery” with their teammates while conveniently handing out packets of freebies, and everyone nods seriously, as if this isn’t a purely planned infomercial right in the middle of the program. I get it – TiVo has ruined the commercial. But do we have to recruit people who’ve already been forced to be weighed and parade around shirtless (or in sports bras) on national television to do the network’s dirty work?
 
The End Result: But even though “Biggest Loser” doesn’t always square with me, I can’t deny it’s infinitely watchable. The show drags out the weigh-ins interminably, until we’re on the edge of our seats, rooting for 290 instead of 300. Contestants cry and strategize and we find ourselves rooting for favorites, deriding others as schemers and, well, basically watching the very obese struggle to lose pounds with the same excitement we usually reserve for watching the castmates of “The Amazing Race” roll hay bales or eat smoked haddock until they’re sick. There’s something to be said for the humanizing aspect of the show. People who are so often ignored or the subjects of scathing comments are revealed to be just like anyone else, good or bad.Plus, people lose weight. They get healthy. I don't doubt Jillian Michaels (who's leaving the show) and Bob Harper are as dedicated as they seem to be.
 
And yet I still can’t get past the game play, the scheming, the hypocrisy of a show that pushes redemption and exploitation in equal amounts. “It’s not about money, it’s not about winning. It’s about getting my life back,” said castmate Jesse in one episode. Except it’s not about getting his life back. That’s just a happy side effect. If it happens. In the end, it's just a reality TV competition, no more, no less. I just wish, with these people battling not just to be acceptably thin but to save their own lives, it was more.
 
Verdict: Thought both are watchable and “The Biggest Loser” is exciting to watch, “Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition” is less likely to leave you feeling queasy, regardless of whether or not you eat the Ben & Jerry’s.