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As 'Loser' doubles, trainers gain pain

As Season 5, a couples' challenge, opens, the two coaches say it's hard to say goodbye.

January 01, 2008|Rene Lynch | Times Staff Writer

If it were up to Jillian Michaels -- best known as the drill sergeant trainer on "The Biggest Loser" -- the show wouldn't revolve around weight-loss competitions. She'd put an end to those diabolical temptations. And no one would be sent home for falling below the dreaded yellow line.

But then, of course, there wouldn't be a show.

The NBC reality series revolves around these cornerstones as it takes a handful of morbidly obese Americans and gives their fattening and lethargic lifestyles a radical makeover. There are off-the-wall competitions, enticements to eat fattening food and back-stabbing as contestants are asked to adhere to strict diets and submit to sadistic workouts doled out by Michaels and co-trainer Bob Harper. Each week, it culminates in the moment when contestants strip down to the bare essentials and weigh themselves, often to jaw-dropping results. (The two who lose the least amount of weight by percentage, not pounds -- as cordoned off by that yellow line -- face the chopping block.)

The final four contestants compete for $250,000, while eliminated contestants who continue to exercise and diet on their own have a shot at a separate pot of cash.

Season 5 of "The Biggest Loser" gets underway today, when many Americans resolve to slim their waistlines, and will join a glut of other reality shows being trotted out during the writers strike.

For the first time, the series has enlisted couples, among them a mother and a daughter, two fellow fat camp counselors who are overweight themselves, two former football teammates who together weigh nearly 800 pounds and a divorced man and his ex-wife. They'll compete together in the early rounds, so if one fails to lose weight, it will jeopardize the other's fate.

Or, as the show puts it, these folks helped each other get fat, now they need to help each other lose weight.

As shooting of the new season got underway, there were other changes too, including less emphasis on competition and more on training together as one large group and focusing on the often dysfunctional relationships that landed contestants on the show.

"It was like that for a few minutes," Michaels joked. "Until it became 'too Kumbaya.' . . . It doesn't make very good TV."

And that's just the reality of reality TV.

During a break from shooting Season 5, Michaels and Harper -- who are portrayed as rivals on the show but are actually friends -- talked about their gratitude for a show that has given them fame and fortune, and the steep emotional penalty it extracts in return.

For his part, Harper said he believes his work is carrying out God's calling for him. But that doesn't make it any less gut-wrenching to forge a bond with the men and women who arrive at "The Biggest Loser" campus in Southern California and then watch them get picked off one by one in the early rounds.

"I hate it . . . it's just not who I am," Harper said of the game-playing and back-stabbing that can go on among contestants. (The normally placid Harper seethed last season when one competitor strategized to throw a key weigh-in by guzzling so much water that he gained 17 pounds.)

"I prefer the camaraderie over the competition. But it is what it is."

"It makes me physically sick," Michaels said. "I don't want to use what I do to send someone else home. I'm angst-ridden over it. I can't sleep before eliminations. My friends are like 'It's just a show!' and I can't look at it like that. It has too much gravity to me."

That's not likely to change any time soon, either. The reality TV show is relatively cheap to produce, has a loyal audience and also does well in the 18-to-49 age group that advertisers seek. Success and branding extend beyond the show itself, as well: There have been international TV spinoffs, a vast online community has cropped up at biggestloserclub.com, there are "Biggest Loser" workout books and cookbooks with more from Michaels and Harper on the horizon, as well as workout DVDs, including two recent releases, "The Biggest Loser Workout: Cardio Max" and "The Biggest Loser Workout: Power Sculpt."

Not bad for a show that some thought was DOA when it was first announced. The name alone was enough to make people think it would ridicule the obese. J.D. Roth, an executive producer on the show, along with NBC Co-chairman Ben Silverman, said he found himself defending the premise at every turn -- even to his wife.

The inspirational aspect of the show changed many viewers' minds, but the competitive nature still offends some.

"The wrong idea for a 'health' show," wrote one person at imdb.com, who went on to lambaste the elimination aspect of the show and its emphasis on losing weight instead of keeping weight off for the long haul.

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