Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Show to Hate, A Show to Love

You could almost call it a guilty pleasure. I find I hesitate and become a bit self-conscious before revealing to people that the only tv show I watch religiously these days is "Biggest Loser". Yes, that's right. The reality show about fat people trying to become skinny people. When I first heard about it a few years back, I'm sure I rolled my eyes and thought it a horrible joke.

Then we got cable, and went instantly from having three television stations to having hundreds. And one evening, mindlessly flipping through the channels, it happened. There I was, watching the Fat People tv show. And I've been on it ever since.

It shouldn't have come as a total surprise, actually. I'm a hundred pound loser myself - well, almost. A number of years ago I sent myself into shock by stepping on a scale in my doctor's office, and weighed in at 326! My own self-delusion at the time was that I was merely a bit on the heavy side. I knew I was around 300, but just barely, I kidded myself. That weigh in broke the back of my self deception, and change started the next day. It took me maybe three months to crack the 300 pound barrier, and several more years to get into the 220's. I still struggle with bouts of inflation - like just now. Bicycle season has ended, Xmas party season is in full swing, and I'm hovering around 240. Not easy losing weight. So when I watch Biggest Loser, I understand. I'm with them. I love watching the contestants working so hard, confronting their demons and doubts, and melting off the pounds, revealing the beauty they've been hiding. And the bottom line for me is that here we have a prime time television show that is truly transformative!

Yes, the show has quite a few reasons to fault it. There's the endless product placement and promotion. There's the constant crying and tugging at heart strings. Then, there's the worry that, well...are all these people just gonna put all that weight back on, once the glitz is over, the personal training ends, and they're back to being regular people in their regular lives? And the most distressing feature to me, really highlighted in the just ended season, is the publicizing of very personal and very painful stories, and the huge risk of causing shame and humiliation to the defenceless. This risk was possibly realized this season, when a leading contestant recounted the putdowns heaped upon her by her family all her life, citing them as the reason for her low self-esteem, and a factor in her abandonment of self, until saved by the Biggest Loser trainers. It was painful to witness her televised confrontation with her parents, to see their shock and imagine the shame they felt being exposed in a way they couldn't possibly have been prepared for.

And yet, I find it's a powerful show, one that goes far beyond most others, in terms of the real, human life stakes it addresses. It's a program that offers a way out to its contestants, not primarily in the form of a pile of cash, but in the form of powerful life management tools. They aren't guaranteed. The show itself has touched on (though not enough, in my opinion) the danger and ease with which one can slide back into old ways, ways most contestants have lived with their entire lives before their brief time on "the ranch".

So, balanced against this one, what is the show I hate? That would be "Dragon's Den". It's a show that invites entrepreneurs to pitch their business or business idea to a panel of moguls, in hopes of getting said moguls to personally finance them. It's not a bad idea, really. It has a strong transformative potential in its own right. It's a real life scenario packaged for television, and presents to its audience something probably not far off the truth, in terms of what entrepreneurs face in their quest for venture capital.

What I loathe about the show is the panel of moguls. Could there be a more cynical, self-interested, manipulative and opportunistic lot? It's understandable that they reject most of the propositions they face. It is their money, and they have the right - even the obligation, one could argue - to invest it with care. But must they talk down to the petitioners as they do, belittling and ridiculing them endlessly? They often show a callous disregard for the products and services in which they have no interest, but are quick to express indignation or turn dismissive if their recommendations meet with resistance or disagreement.

What's worst, in my opinion, is their determination to wrest control of every good idea that comes their way. Despite the professionalism, entrepreneurial vision and creativity displayed by the presenters of these business plans, the moguls seem never to be willing to support as equal partners, let alone as minority share-holders. At the end, Dragon's Den is a show that leaves a bad taste in my mouth

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