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‘The Biggest Loser’: USA Network Reboot Is a Vapid Relic of a Bygone Era

The reboot has a new setting and new trainers, but the controversial reality competition show still has the same issues that has made the brand critically reviled for years.


“The Biggest Loser”

John Britt/USA Network

In the first 30 minutes of “The Biggest Loser” reboot two contestants are overworked to the point of vomiting while another is ordered to continue exercising despite their muscles cramping up. In Episode 3 a contestant is complimented for losing 45 pounds in three weeks. The network, setting and trainers might be new, but make no mistake: “The Biggest Loser” hasn’t changed, and the passage of time has only made the reality competitions show’s odious premise seem all the more outdated.

To understand how thoroughly USA Network’s  “The Biggest Loser” reboot misses the mark, one must recall the original NBC series’ myriad controversies. Though the original show (like the reboot, it centered on a group of obese or overweight contestants who compete to lose the highest percentage of weight for cash) enjoyed commercial success throughout its 17-season run, the series was embroiled in numerous controversies about its dangerous approach to weight loss and the treatment of its contestants. Prior seasons’ participants have claimed that contestants were starved and forcibly dehydrated before weighing themselves for the camera, and one contestant alleged that Bob Harper (a former “The Biggest Loser” trainer who serves as the reboot’s host) encouraged the show’s participants to take Adderall and weight-loss drugs.

By the mid-2010s, cultural norms had shifted to the point that the entire concept behind “The Biggest Loser” seemed like a relic of a bygone era. Unsurprisingly, NBC quietly and unceremoniously axed the original show four years ago.

The announcement that USA Network was rebooting “The Biggest Loser” raised more than a few eyebrows, and though the reboot retains the original show’s outrage-baiting title, its marketing promised that the new series would be focused on living a healthy lifestyle, rather than just losing as much weight as possible. Unfortunately, the show’s dismal Q&A panel during the Television Critics Association 2020 Winter Press Tour last month suggested that its marketing was mostly bunk. (IndieWire has reached out to USA for additional comment.) The panelists were incapable of addressing even the most basic concerns journalists and critics raised about the series, but despite the considerable baggage associated with the brand, there’s no doubt that a show with such strong name recognition could actually promote positive change.

It’s not that there isn’t room on the market for a show about weight loss. Obesity is an increasingly serious epidemic in the United States, with some recent studies suggesting that nearly half of American adults will be obese by 2030. There’s a golden opportunity for a television series, reality or otherwise, to address this issue in a positive way, but a competition show such as “The Biggest Loser,” where the goal is to lose as much weight as possible in the shortest amount of time, is anathema to healthy weight loss.

Weight loss works differently for everyone, but most people who have maintained their figures after losing significant amounts of weight (myself included) will agree on several key factors. Perhaps most important is that healthily losing large amounts of weight is a gradual process that takes months or even years. This was easily the biggest hurdle I faced when I set out to become healthier several years ago, as it was difficult to accept that one week of proper eating and going to the gym wasn’t enough to slim down. Weight loss is a long-term commitment, but it’s one that became immensely easier once I realized that small, albeit consistent, lifestyle adjustments were more impactful than dramatically overhauling my day-to-day routine. It took me around one and a half years to lose the 70 pounds necessary for me to become healthy, but most of that journey was relatively mundane: I hit the gym for around 45 minutes roughly three times per week and ensured that I only ate around 2,000 calories on weekdays. I’ve since doubled how often I go to the gym since hitting my weight goal, but my routine is otherwise unchanged. It’s boring, but it’s also realistic and entirely manageable (seriously, you can eat a lot of delicious fast food for under 2,000 calories per day).

Perhaps similar basic lifestyle adjustments wouldn’t make for the most thrilling reality television show, but that doesn’t excuse “The Biggest Loser” from hawking such ludicrous weight loss ideas to its audience. Though the show might suggest otherwise, you shouldn’t transition from wolfing down thousands of calories of fried garbage and sitting on the couch one day to exclusively eating salads and running marathons the next day, because extreme changes in diets and workout regimens without any concessions will cause you to quickly burn out or relapse (a significant criticism of prior “The Biggest Loser” seasons is that many of its contestants regained their weight after filming wrapped).

Sometimes you’ll weigh yourself and find that your weight hasn’t changed, or has perhaps gone up one or two pounds, despite your best efforts. I know that feeling sucks, but it’s okay, because that’s how bodies work and what you lose in the long-term is more important, anyway. And it should go without saying, but it’s time to take a break if exercising is causing you to violently throw up. Also, if you’re morbidly obese and have knee issues, trying to do box jumps is more likely to land you in the hospital than anything else.

None of this holds true on “The Biggest Loser,” where gamifying weight loss is still the modus operandi. Like older seasons, the reboot dedicates much of its time to workouts and outlandish competitions that would be strenuous for most athletic individuals, let alone the show’s morbidly obese contestants, many of whom are middle-aged or older. Yes, the box jump thing happens, and yes, contestants are still shown vomiting, having panic attacks, and fainting. Remember, this is the stuff that made it into the final cut; one can only imagine what went on behind the scenes. Though there are allegedly doctors on-site and a disclaimer (weirdly placed in the middle of each episode) insists that the workouts and diets were tailored to each contestant, it’s hard to have much confidence in those things, given the on-screen action.

THE BIGGEST LOSER -- "Supporting the Team" Episode 103 -- Pictured: Steve Cook -- (Photo by: John Britt/USA Network)

“The Biggest Loser” trainer Steve Cook talks to series contestants.

John Britt/USA Network

While the core concept behind “The Biggest Loser” reboot hasn’t changed, the USA Network series does modify a few elements of the original series. For starters, contestants (who are split into two teams) no longer vote one other off the show. Instead, the contestant who sheds the lowest percentage of body weight each episode gets the axe, though the team that wins the show’s weekly competitions gets a statistical advantage during the weigh-ins (again, this show is about the gamification of health). So, it’s not really a good change, but at least the contestants aren’t scheming against one another this go-around.

The reboot also briefly touches on the mental aspects of weight loss and handles that subject much better than the inadvisable exercise routines it promotes. Weight loss is as much a mental battle as a physical one, and the show dedicates time to group support sessions where contestants discuss their insecurities and emotional issues and how those problems impact their physical well-being. There’s also one scene in one of the four episodes USA Network provided to critics that focuses on healthy eating. A proper diet is essential to healthy weight loss — exercising to lose weight is moot if your calorie intake is excessive — and “The Biggest Loser” offers a few tips on cutting calories while still getting to enjoy popular dishes.

If the show has any other advice, it’s that Planet Fitness is good. “The Biggest Loser” incessantly promotes the popular gym chain, which is best known for enticing its customers with free calorie-heavy food but not allowing them to cancel their memberships online, to the point of distraction. The show’s cardio machines are all from Planet Fitness, contestants who get booted off the show get a free year-long membership to Planet Fitness, and sometimes the contestants who win the weekly athletic competitions get some sort of Planet Fitness merchandise.

At least the contestants seem nice enough. Their diverse backgrounds and relatable, everyman problems make them easy to emphasize with, and anyone who has or is struggling with weight loss will probably be able to relate to at least one of the contestants. The same can’t be said for the reboot’s trainers, internet personalities Erica Lugo and Steve Cook, who mostly exacerbate the show’s issues. They alternate between barking at their wards like drill sergeants, offering tepid self-help platitudes, and breathlessly analyzing how their contestants’ performances will impact the team during each episode’s weigh-in, excruciatingly overlong and repetitive segments that constitute around a third of each episode’s runtime and embody the worst aspect of the show’s messaging: Gradual weight loss doesn’t matter. You’re failing unless you lose the most weight possible in the shortest time period. “The Biggest Loser” might not openly mock its contestants for their weight issues, but it’s still doing everything that has made the brand critically reviled since the original series’ 2004 debut.

Any criticism of “The Biggest Loser” is bound to hone in on its messaging, because there’s staggeringly little to say about the series as an entertainment product. The jokes are insipid (though thankfully less prevalent than the prior seasons’ banter) and the show leans far too heavily on cheesy music to drive its emotional points home. The pacing is disjointed, the drama is laughably plastic, and there’s no sense of health-related progression between episodes.

While the show’s occasional conversations on the non-exercise aspects of weight loss are admirable, a few scattered minutes in each hour-long episode doesn’t remotely make up for the insane workout regimens and repellent weight loss ideology that “The Biggest Loser” champions. “The Biggest Loser” is not a thoughtful contemplation on healthy living, and it barely qualifies as entertainment.

“The Biggest Loser” releases new episodes every Tuesday on USA Network.

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