Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition is a kinder, gentler version of The Biggest Loser. Gone is the competitive game show aspect, and with it, the compressed time window that has laid The Biggest Loser wide open to charges that it does at least as much to put its contestants at health risk as it does to help them out. Here, each episode covers a year in the life of a single guest plus-size, who is given instructions and encouragement and left alone for months at a time to meet a series of weight loss goals. Gone, too, are the drill show trappings and the tough love attitude that goes with them. The Biggest Loser is a show for people who saw Louis Gossett, Jr. make a man out of Richard Gere by hollering abuse at him in An Officer and a Gentleman and came away convinced that this approach can work miracles in all areas of life. EM:WLE is more of a show for people who saw Full Metal Jacket instead and doesn't really want to see anybody's brains used to paint the lavatory walls.
The differences are embodied in the host, Chris Powell, an affable, open-faced dude who sounds enthusiastic but non-pressuring when he vows that "Every time you tell me you can't do something, I'm gonna prove you wrong!" (According to the clips from future programs that appear in the opening credits, one poor fool apparently told him that there was no way in hell that he could be harnessed to a small plane and drag it across a tarmac.) The most R. Lee Ermey Powell he ever gets is when he uses the term "boot camp" for what turns out to be a friendly lecture on nutrition and a weigh-in, albeit one carried out on a loading dock using a freight scale, because a regular bathroom scale won't accommodate his first client: Rachel, a 21-year-old children's gym instructor who checks in at 369 pounds.
Powell seems nurturing even when he's supervising a workout session that has Rachel grunting and squealing in pain as she exerts muscles that her body had probably forgotten were in there somewhere. When Rachel shows up for her latest scheduled workout and the scales show disappointing results, he allows the cameras to catch a look of dismay on his face, but to Rachel, he doesn't even betray a streak of Marvin the Martian "Im not mad, just terribly, terribly hurt" petulance. "I'm a specialist in amazing transformations," he tells the camera, and anyone else who'll listen. The first time I heard that line, I thought of David Cronenberg, but by the end of the show, I'd come to think of him as one of those straight-arrow heroes from a 1950s sci-fi movies about giant radioactive grasshoppers, come to defeat our giant insect overlords and make the future safe for foursquare blandness. Maybe because of Powell's tender ministrations, Rachel comes to seem like one of the heroines from those movies, a sweet, virginal dollface whose body has turned on her and mutated.
The big question about the format of this show is whether the process of weight loss can provide any tension or suspense without its being turned into a competitive race. The first episode does have hold your attention, mainly because Rachel is so adorable it's impossible not to root for her. People on these kinds of shows often talk about wanting to "take their lives back", but Rachel makes it clear that, as far as she's concerned, her life hasn't begun yet. Told by Powell, in an uncharacteristic burst of hyperbole, that this is her last chance, Rachel replies, "This is my first chance! I ain't been skinny in my life." Being skinny and having a life are clearly synonymous in her mind, yet she's always been overweight, even though she insists that weight problems don't run in her family. She may be grading on a curve; her parents are in no danger of being mistaken for Jabba the Hut and Mrs. Hutt, but they're not exactly Jack Sprat and Twiggy, either. Powell, who has to get on the next plane, presumably because he has other people to check on who we'll be meeting in the later episodes, has concerns about the home environment to which he's entrusting his star pupil. A quick glimpse inside the kitchen shows that the family seems to be preparing to feast on a cauldron of piping hot fried chicken skin.
Powell has a few ideas on how to deal with this. For starters, the members of the family who take up the fewest square inches of your TV screen are outfitted with weights and made to hot foot it around a track so they can better appreciate what Rachel has to drag around every minute of her life. This is followed by a direct assault on the contents of the family refrigerator, a scene that I wasn't sure Momma was going to make it through alive. While Powell reaches into the icebox with both hands and tosses stuff onto the floor, Mom can be heard muttering something to the effect that there are children in China going to be hungry without their trans fats, and finally staggers outside to treat herself to an attack of the vapors in the driveway. Whether or not unhealthy eating habits run in the family, drama seems to, as Rachel confirms when Powell takes her to her one-woman spin class and she makes the kind of noises that I expect they got tired of hearing during the Spanish Inquisition. When Powell offers Rachel, who's never set foot out of Georgia, the reward of a free trip to Greece, she makes a sound like woodchucks being electrocuted. Turns out this is a sign of her approval.
I don't know how much fun this show will be for the diehard fans of The Biggest Loser. Personally, I found it more pleasant, or maybe just less grating, than I'm Jillian Michaels, and I'm Here to Eat Your Jelly Donut!, but a lot of people must really enjoy the format of that show, or else it wouldn't have just completed its eleventh season. EM:WLE is, at its core, a saner show, but that may not be the path to success. And whether the series as a whole can hold up will depend on whether the producers can keep serving up subjects who you want to root for, so much so that it doesn't matter that there's probably only so many variations that can be rung on the formula. But it's hard not to smile when Rachel actually manages to peel off enough pounds that all the sadness fades from her smile. It's all very uplifting, and though I myself am not a devotee of uplifting TV, the show is lucky in its timing. There must be some Oprah junkies out there who are dying for a fix by now.