Thursday, November 13, 2008
January is the typically the month that the cable channels pump up their coverage of weight-loss shows. The first month of the year coincides with both those extra pounds folks put on over the holidays and those New Year's resolutions.
But this week the Style Network rolled out Ruby, a reality series about a Savannah, Ga., woman, who at nearly 500 pounds, realizes she's got to lose weight or suffer serious health consequences.
Ruby is certainly TV-ready: She's a lively, ebullient redhead with a domestic set-up that seems ripped from a 1980s sitcom. She shares her modest ranch home with her best boy-bud from childhood, her home-schooled, teen-age nephew who adores her, and two tiny terriers, who wear cute little outfits. Nearby, Ruby's got a gang of friends, who all get together for awesomely delicious (bad-for-you) feasts of Southern comfort food.
Episode one takes care of introductions -- not just of Ruby and her makeshift family, but also her doctor who declares her "a metabolic timebomb" and a passel of professionals -- trainer, nutritionist, obesity doctor and shrink -- who will help Ruby (hopefully) get down to 150 pounds. (Presumably, the show is footing these not-insubstantial bills for these helpers; Ruby lives on disability.)
No surprises for guessing the upcoming narrative: Will Ruby lose the weight? Will her friends stop making her pecan cheesecake? What new problems will surface? (The first visit with the shrink suggests unresolved trauma in Ruby's early adolescence that -- tah dah! -- coincides with her rapid weight gain.) When and how will Ruby backslide? And, if she makes it, what new experiences and insights will open up for Ruby?
If you're a vet of your own weight-loss struggles and/or a regular watcher of such shows, you can likely write out most of the season yourself. But it's this familiarity that makes such shows watchable -- these are windows into very real realities, and whether any viewer gets inspired may be less important than simply seeing similar struggles presented sympathetically. (I wonder, though, how many folks wish they were on the show: If Ruby has any advantage over the stay-at-home viewer, it's that her weight-loss scheme is public. Knowing you're on TV and millions (or at least thousands) are watching is a powerful incentive to stay on track, as is the supporting cast of pricey professionals.)
And while Ruby is taking the old-school route -- diet and exercise -- I think my favorite weight-loss show is TLC's gastric-bypass celebration, Big Medicine. There's been two seasons, and undoubtedly a third is on its way.
What primarily attracts me to Big Medicine is its concept which, even after all these episodes, never fails to blow my tiny mind. In the decade since they've debuted, we've become so inured to reality shows that it's hard to stand back and see how bizarre the genre has become.
So imagine this pitch 10 years ago: We follow along with a father-son team of gastric-bypass surgeons in Houston, as they see patients, perform their signature operation -- together, while squabbling! -- and conduct follow-up oversight with a nearby plastic surgeon, whose job is to cut off huge flaps of excess skin from success stories.
But I also like this about Big Medicine: Given its subject matter and emphasis on unclothed obese folks, it's low on exploitation; father-son doctors Big D and Garth are the sorts of caring, yet no-nonsense physicians you'd hope to work with (crusty old Big D, formerly of South Africa, is also given to frequent rants against the bullshit state of American health insurance); and -- I know I'm in the minority here -- I do find the explicit surgical footage fascinating.
I support Ruby, her quest and Ruby's producers, but the entertainment edge likely goes to Big Medicine, if only because that bypass procedure seems better suited for TV: You get the genuine drama of the surgery (potentially risky), with all its attendant medical info; tidy back stories; and -- one can't discount this when laying out a TV season -- relatively quick and dramatic results.