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The gospel according to Extreme Weight Loss

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.

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.

Despite these drawbacks, and despite being bounced from one time slot to another, and despite the presence of Powell’s wife, Heidi, as an additional, potentially distracting host, Extreme Weight Loss has somehow survived into its fifth season, which ended in September. How did it endure its multiple reboots and its own baked-in mediocrity?

The answer, it seems to me, is that the show has developed an oddly earnest spiritual aspect. Extreme Weight Loss belongs to a long tradition of American self-improvement, which encompasses not only Dale Carnegie and M. Scott Peck, not only Alcoholics Anonymous and the entire born-again wing of the modern evangelical movement, but the Great Awakening of the 1740s. Against all odds, Extreme Weight Loss is not frivolous in the usual network-television way. It speaks to a deadly serious portion of the American public — to people who are hungry for the possibility of change and growth, and who are willing to attempt herculean feats in order to get there, as long as they are treated with genuine kindness and respect.

Take Bruce Pitcher. At the beginning of Episode 404, we see him in his element, cheering on his team and showing off the championship ring from his own high-school years. At first blush, it’s straight out of Friday Night Lights. Pitcher does volunteer that his father is not present in the household. Trying to make sense of this disclosure, you might imagine a history of parental abandonment (which would be enough to kindle neurotic overeating for many people). Then Pitcher admits on camera that his father was a serial predator, and that he was among those abused.

At this point, Extreme Weight Loss interviews the entire Pitcher household. Aside from Bruce himself, the family consists of his mother and an adopted brother (with, it seems, restless legs syndrome). It is abundantly obvious that this group of people has not discussed Danny Pitcher’s incarceration for years. In a gush of woe, Bruce’s mom admits that she was working too hard when the trouble took place, and was not home often enough to observe what was happening. She then alludes briefly to Bruce’s attempted suicide. Both boys are stony-faced throughout this discussion, wearing masks of inconceivable suffering.

Chris Powell arrives on the scene shortly thereafter, fully briefed, and goes off to introduce himself to Bruce at the gym. This is a regular feature of Extreme Weight Loss — the surprise annunciation — and in the past, it has involved Powell donning a fake mustache, suiting up for a walk-on role in a school play, simulating ballet, and playing a little country music. Powell performs these impersonations like a mischievous Ariel, with good humor and aplomb. In Episode 404, Pitcher recognizes him immediately, as the protagonists always do, and the moment Powell enters the gym, the two go in for a jubilant bear hug.

I mentioned an epiphany earlier, and I will describe it now. After surprising Pitcher mid-workout, Powell confides that Bruce’s transformation will not come from lifting weights or running around the track, but from overcoming the legacy of incest and abuse. “It’s about you having that closure with him,” he tells Bruce, referring to Danny Pitcher. “My goal is that in the next three hundred sixty-five days you’re going to be so strong in and of yourself that you close that chapter and you wash your hands of him.”

In other words, weight loss is merely the backdrop for psychic growth and self-actualization. Pitcher is given motivational gifts along the way: football tickets and a training session with former NFL wide receiver Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (himself a victim of sexual abuse as a child). As it happens, Pitcher proves to be extremely good at losing weight — one of the best in the history of the show. He seems willing to train endlessly during the boot-camp sequence with Chris and Heidi. The weight just falls off this guy, especially at first. But the hard part is always the second and third quarters of the year, when the novelty dwindles and the focus shifts from physical to psychic transformation.

At this point, Powell insists that Pitcher must confront his father at an upcoming parole hearing. Whereupon this bumbling program, this sham entertainment, cuts to courtroom footage of the hearing, in the course of which a son gently argues that his father should never be released from prison.

Television is rarely as genuine as the minute of screen time devoted to Bruce Pitcher’s testimony. He admits to loving his father and says that he always tried to make him happy (the implications here are heartrending to consider). Still, he doesn’t think his father should be released, “for his own safety and for the safety of others.” Pitcher says, “I just wanted to make a stand for all the victims who have ever been victimized, that it’s okay to confront the person who did it to you. And that’s what I wanted to say today.”

The Book of John, in the New Testament, is a theological outlier. Somewhat Hellenistic in its attitude, perhaps even a bit gnostic, the text is given to such historically rash ideas as the identification of Jesus with the divine Logos: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” There’s no Last Supper in John (foot washing instead), no parables, and Jesus doesn’t visibly ascend to heaven. All in all, this is a book for mystics, would-be visionaries, anti-literalists. It’s also the Gospel that gave birth to the rhetoric of being born again.

In mainline Protestant theology, being born again traditionally refers to the institution of baptism: if you were baptized as a child, you were admitted to the society of faith, and no man or woman could say otherwise. There was no second hoop to jump through. But sometime after the Reformation, a radical new idea began to take hold — that you needed some additional, cataclysmic experience, in which the Holy Spirit came to make itself manifest in you, in order to be a true member of the church. The relevant passage comes, of course, from the Book of John: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The passage is a little vague. Perhaps centuries of redaction and interpretation and textual hairsplitting have blurred its original meaning. In any case, this ambiguous declaration spawned an entire theology. The First Great Awakening stressed emotional transformation as the catalytic agent for religious experience. Spurning the polite rationalism of the Enlightenment, Jonathan Edwards — arguably the leading voice of the Awakening and certainly its most diligent chronicler — went straight to this issue of emotional rebirth. As one witness reported in 1741:

We went over to Enfield where we met dear Mr. Edwards of Northampton who preached a most awakening sermon from these words — Deut. 32:35 — and before [the] sermon was done, there was a great moaning and crying out through the whole house: “What shall I do to be saved?” — “Oh, I am going to hell” — “Oh, what shall I do for Christ?” — etc. So that the minister was obliged to desist. The shrieks and cries were piercing and amazing.

According to some scholars and historians, we are at present in the midst of a Fourth Great Awakening, which commenced in the early 1960s. Though the dates are arguable, a straight line can certainly be drawn from Edwards’s congregation to the fervid throngs in today’s megachurches. This being the ever-pragmatic United States of America, we often insist that these transformations, these rebirths, be verifiable. Yes, being born again is a private experience, an inner communion with the Holy Spirit — but it is also a public, evidentiary one. Ideally it should be visible to the naked eye. (John 4:48: “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.”) Otherwise, how do you know that the person next to you at your Pentecostal service really has been born again, and is not simply some clever simulator hired by a Flannery O’Connor–style evangelical fraud to separate you from your wallet? The brother to whom the snakebite has just been administered must get up from his fever and attest his recovery. The parishioner with cancer must be healed of her tumors. The alcoholic must surrender the drink.

Chris Powell’s “complete transformation” — his insistence that if you can overcome the traumas that afflict you, you will have the wherewithal to lose weight — fuses this charismatic need for evidence with a more secular New Age theology. Powell’s transformation is less doctrinal. It doesn’t quite need a redeemer (maybe the Book of John doesn’t quite need one, either), but it definitely requires an epiphany. This accounts for the fight-or-flight workout on the first day of every episode. Not a single participant gets through Powell’s ordeal without a few tears and a renunciation of worldly things — just like in baptism. And in a neat act of poetic inversion, we move from the prosperity gospel of the charismatic movement (with its endorsement of earthly gains) to the morphological gospel of Extreme Weight Loss (with its endorsement of corporeal shrinkage).

Powell, a perhaps unwitting child of the Great Awakening, relies heavily on physical evidence. Indeed, the entire show is geared toward the weight-loss reveal in its final minutes, during which the slimmed-down participant is trotted out for the faithful in a revivalist fashion. There is the display of the body, often after the participant has suffered through a siege of skin-removal surgery — a literalized form of “opening up.” And there is the inevitable conversion monologue, much of it given over to protestations of love for Chris and Heidi. The material transformation often goes beyond the merely adipose: note the new threads, the new hair, the dental work. Still, the makeover of the spirit remains front and center. Something transformative does seem to be happening on the program, and not only in Episode 404.

Powell describes his own epiphany in a book called Choose to Lose (2011). As he writes:

One fateful day in June 2003, I received an email that would change my life forever. “My name is David Smith. I have an all too common name but I am not at all common. . . . I am 26 years old and I weigh over 630 pounds.”

Powell goes on: “After reading David’s message, I knew I could help him. In fact, I knew that I had to help this man.” As you might imagine, Smith lost quite a bit of weight, emerged from the dank basement he inhabited, and became a trainer and public acolyte himself. That is, he came to evangelize, like Paul the Apostle, and among his later epistles is the following: “Nothing is impossible in this world. If you want it you just need to grab hold of it and never let go.” Powell’s response: “I read David’s note in the middle of a coffee shop and cried for half an hour.”2

The point here is that the total transformation of Extreme Weight Loss always involves this narrative of spiritual growth. Invariably there is the open heart, the sentimental outpouring. Just take a look at Episode 405, about a woman whose military husband committed suicide, or Episode 407, about the lesbian makeup artist who misses competing in beauty pageants, or Episode 409, about the woman who put on 200 pounds after giving up her son for adoption and can’t bring herself to contact him until she makes herself more presentable. Episode 411 is about Christy, who ultimately gets booted off the show (a first!) for lying about her exercise regimen, and Episode 412 concerns a gay high-school drama coach who comes out to his father while struggling to remain honest about his life and progress. As I write these lines, Season 5 is in the middle of its course and supplying more of the same, including a conflicted gay firefighter and two couples who want to slim down for their impending nuptials.

A humble flock, to be sure: the meek who will inherit the earth. Powell is by no means entirely accepting about morbid obesity — he misunderstands food addiction, it seems to me, frequently describing it as a choice rather than a compulsive illness — yet he is full of patience, support, tolerance, and even love for his charges and their afflictions. In this sense, perhaps, Powell might be called a messianic fitness expert. Here is Pitcher’s mother, talking to a local reporter about her son’s skin-removal surgery and its aftermath:

When Bruce was in the hospital right after his surgery, we were having a hard time getting him out of bed, and Heidi just happened to call right at that moment. Bruce was so discouraged he wouldn’t even respond. The next day we were trying again to get him up and he was so discouraged still, but when the nurses were in the room with us there was a knock at the door and Chris and Heidi walked in just to show their support. There is not a doubt in my mind they love my boy.

Is “messianic” too strong a word? Is Chris Powell just a sweet and caring guy, or is there a spark of the divine in him? For this viewer, living in the midst of a Fourth Great Awakening that relies as much on the cosmetic surgeon and the car salesman as the Gospels, the description seems reasonable. Powell remakes his charges, he cares for them until they can care for themselves: he seems to have the touch.

Indeed, the show itself has undergone a total transformation, morphing from the crass Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition to the more spiritually daring Extreme Weight Loss. It has had an epiphany about its very subject, which is not weight loss but the spiritual prerequisites for losing weight. It is a show about the spiritual awakening that occasionally makes it possible for addicts to put down the needle, and for sinners to straighten up and fly right. In our evangelical nation, where all things are possible if you are born anew — a straight nose, a good job, six-pack abs, a modicum of happiness — I would argue that the show’s host is just messianic enough. After all, the guy’s first name is Christopher.

’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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