Criticism — From the December 2015 issue

Slender Mercies

The gospel according to Extreme Weight Loss

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For me, the epiphany came during Episode 404, broadcast on June 24 of last year. Here’s the setup. Bruce Pitcher, somewhere north of 350 pounds at the commencement of the episode, is a high-school football coach — a good-hearted, sideline-bellowing figure who has given his all to the sport and is extremely popular with his teenage charges. As is often the case on this particular television show, Pitcher is also a binge eater of the lonely, isolated variety, who has been known to consume up to five 100-ounce vats of soda per day.

Illustration by Barry Falls

Illustration by Barry Falls

There is, however, an additional twist to Pitcher’s tale: his father. Danny Pitcher, who was also a football coach, has been imprisoned since his son’s high-school years for sexually abusing his players. And before Pitcher begins working toward his goal of shedding more than a hundred pounds within the year, he alleges that his father abused him as well — emotionally and physically.

1 The show was originally called Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition. It was spun off from the popular home-renovation program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition — as if weight loss were simply what you did while selecting new track lighting.

A weight-loss show about abuse and incest and a young football coach who once attempted to hang himself? If this combination strikes you as surprising, you haven’t been watching Extreme Weight Loss. There are many reasons you may have been avoiding the show, which practically invites your prejudicial feelings. Weight-loss programming is, let’s be honest, a weed species in the garden of American entertainment, from Jack LaLanne to Richard Simmons. It is the kind of thing you watch when you exhibit a little food addiction yourself, or maybe a touch of bulimia, or perhaps when you are acutely depressed. And Extreme Weight Loss, in its earliest iteration, did not lack for traditional weight-loss-programming shamelessness.1

During its initial season, in 2011, it competed with The Biggest Loser, a show of Machiavellian savagery. The Biggest Loser is a contest, and it features trainers whose motivational style resembles a terror campaign. (One of them, Jillian Michaels, recently left because she believed the show was being edited to conceal her emotional concern for her clients.) The Biggest Loser is The Apprentice for people with food issues. It is harsh, it is Darwinist, it recycles reality stars like American Idol’s Ruben Studdard and encourages you to think of them and the other contestants as abject failures — the implication is right there in the title. Nothing succeeds in American showbiz like victim shaming, and The Biggest Loser does it to perfection, larding on a dollop of sentimentality toward the end of each episode to prevent viewers from feeling too bad about themselves.

Extreme Weight Loss never had any of this going for it. It is not a competition, so there is no narrative anxiety. It is a show about individual struggle, lavishly depicted — each of the episodes, essentially weight-loss documentaries, takes a solid year to film. This is because Chris Powell, the host and a self-anointed “transformation specialist,” follows his charges for that entire labor-intensive period, often moving into their homes, remodeling their garages into state-of-the-art gyms, calling them at all hours of the day and night, showing up at their jobs unannounced, and so forth.

At first, the program seemed doomed to fail. You watched the first five minutes, then skipped directly to the end to see what the participant looked like after — or, if you’re me, you flipped back and forth between Extreme Weight Loss and Rachel Maddow, allowing the expository workout sections to pass unobserved.

But I haven’t even gotten to the trainer yet. Powell is an average-size guy with the endearing aw-shucks mien of an Arizona State frat brother who nonetheless manages to volunteer on the local pediatric ward. He laughs a lot, doesn’t seem to understand his own celebrity, is willing to look bad to make a point. He can do the drill-sergeant routine (his dad was in the military), or at least he can fake it, especially during what he calls the “fight or flight” workout on the first day, but he always appears mildly uncomfortable with his own severity. He has a perpetual three-day growth of beard that makes him look less like Don Johnson and more like a guy who couldn’t be bothered, and he never tucks in his shirt during the important end-of-episode jamboree. As television personalities go, Powell is not only too modest and unprepossessing — he’s inadvertent.

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’s Hotels of North America, a novel, was published this month. His most recent story for Harper’s Magazine, “The Grid,” appeared in the December 1994 issue.

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Fiction From the December 1994 issue

The grid

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