e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


tv round-up

Okay, it's crunch time. Grading papers (almost done!), writing four letters of recommendation, meeting with our service learning partners for end-of-semester wrap-up conversations, hosting party tomorrow night for English Language Studies faculty (I'm making Indian food). What better time than now for a round-up of recent tv consumption?

Big Love. Nicole and I ran into a friend at a Christmas party two weeks ago who we hadn't seen since the same party last year. Good guy. We talked to him much of the night and he couldn't say enough good things about this series which centers on the domestic life of a polygamist and his three wives. We promptly netflix'd the first season and we've already seen five episodes. Like other acclaimed cable shows (Weeds, Sopranos), Big Love highlights the "criminal" and "eccentric" taking place in the most mundane of settings: suburbia. The drug dealing soccer mom. The mafioso who pulls out his hair raising teens, drives an SUV, and goes to therapy. Crime as quirk. Crime not as resistance to bourgeois life but rather as alternate route to success in that bourgois sphere. In Big Love, we gaze upon the upwardly mobile Bill Paxton as the same kind of every-suburbanite.

So the way Big Love tweaks suburban life (and the thin line between mainstream- and counter-culture) is nothing new. More interesting, though, is how the show presents the family's suburban life as a kind of pioneering. Viewers contrast the polygamist family at the heart of the narrative (their comfortable, consumerist lifestyle) with the cult-like encampment (their ascetic, "simple" lives) where the Paxton character and one of his wives grew up. Both lifestyles involve this pioneering ethos: masculine values, work ethic and bootstraps mythology, and westward expansion. The polygamist encampment literally cuts into the western landscape with cabins and tents. Likewise, images of the "Mountain West" loom behind the subdivision where Paxton lives. It's no coincidence that hunting has already figured into the show's plotline. Or that the show references Mormonism's history as a "pioneer" culture. Oh, and Big Love is outstanding, from the pitch-perfect setting to the outstanding performances, especially from Chloe Sevigny who shines as the manipulative, credit-card-loving "middle bride" with a pedigree. Highly recommended.

Biggest Loser. Love-hate relationship with this one. Very few reality shows appeal to me. I don't see them as a sign of the apocalypse or anything, they mostly just aren't my thermos of chai. But the whole weight-loss subgenre is interesting and I watched most of this season of Biggest Loser, wincing most of the way. Okay, I guess one reason I like the show is that I've been fat my whole life. So there's that. Cliche as the sentiment might be, it's good to see a show with men and women of size (and who aren't "funny fat"--see, for example, the usually-male protagonist of many a working-class sitcom). And in 2004, I lost 100 pounds, mainly because 1) I wanted to avoid the heart problems that run in my family, 2) Nicole and I had just gotten life insurance and I weighed enough to up the cost of our policy significantly, and 3) I saw/see the writing on the wall that medical coverage is becoming a privelege in this country and am convinced that there will be portions of my adult life during which I don't have access to medical care, thus a desire to avoid chronic health problems. So I've got an identification with the process of losing weight, too. (Full disclosure: I've gained about 20 pounds back in the last two years.)

And it's an enjoyable show: the human drama, the genuinely interesting contestants, the wacky trainers. Why the wincing? Mainly because "fatness" on the show is a tragedy. A colossal tragedy. It would be nice if just one contestant would say "I've got a rewarding professional life and have been fat my whole life." Or, God forbid, "I think I'm a physically attractive human being and need to lose weight for health reasons." No. Most contestants express little other than pain: I want to be good looking for the first time in my life, I'm embarrassed by my appearance, etc. I don't doubt the sincerity. I recognize that this trauma gives the show it's dramatic trajectory. I can even identify with the struggles (dealing with airplane seats and such). But why no balance? Why no ambivalence? Why no acknowledgment that fatness doesn't preclude professional and personal happiness?

The show wants to put itself on a pedestal when it comes to "good health" (and, by extension, good morals). Family values entertainment. The show that saves marriages and saves lives. How about the waterloading? A practice that involves a contestant who for a number of reasons is safe from getting voted off drinking a couple gallons of water before weigh-in to protect a vulnerable teammate from elimination. Some contestants found the practice to be a sneaky strategy. But nobody--including the trainers--mentioned the health risks such a practice poses. And on last night's finale, one of the "final four" contestants--a professional woman who frequently referred to her teaching career during the season--alluded to having moved to L.A. because she couldn't adjust to life "back home" after her experience on the show. Returning to real life (from the round-the-clock trainers and dieticians one lives with during the competition) seems to have led to a kind of withdrawal and/or depression. No mention of the students who greeted this woman at her welcome home party. No mention of how this abrupt move would impact her professional life.

The laboratory the show sets up isn't sustainable. In this contestant's case, the contrived setting seems to have led to unreasonable expectations (contestants routinely lose double digits of pounds each week). I keep saying "seems" because you never know how editing is constantly manipulating contestants' stories in order to create narratives of trauma, redeption, etc. And, of course, the weight loss itself is a competition, one that fails to account for different body types, compositions, and other factors. For instance, it's no coincidence that a woman has never won the show.

Okay, didn't intend to go on that long. A lot of critique from somebody who watched the show all season long. Like I said, the drama entertains, but, like other reality shows, Biggest Loser is a limited and limiting representation of a complex human situation that is too proud of its own good intentions to problematize itself. I'm reminded of that home make-over show (you know the one, it's got the spiky-haired dude serving as the hyperactive, almost manic host), which never contends with root causes of poverty or contextualizes, well, anything. Is there something wrong with a society in which a disabled Iraq war veteran can't afford to have a ramp put in front of his house? There's no time to ask such a question as the dude's crew turns home improvement into a Mountain Dew, extreme sports commercial. And if you ask such a question, you're not being part of the solution. Pick up a hammer and shut up. Biggest Loser serves a similar anti-activist, anti-critique function. Don't question the industries that profit from people hating their own bodies. Pick up a 100-calorie packet of crackers and shut up.

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