Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Reality Bites Less

There are times when it becomes painfully obvious what a good thing it is that I don't have children. Take, for instance, this neglected blog. If I tended to a kid the way I tend to my blog, one of us would be in jail by now.

Speaking of raising kids and how I know nothing about it, have you seen all the lousy parenting going down on Too Fat For Fifteen: Fighting Back? Wait a minute, you've never heard of TFF15:FB? How is that possible given that it airs in what is commonly referred to as the "real primetime," 4:00 a.m. Mondays on the Style network? Are you already using all available tuners on your DVR at that hour to record Shark infomercials? Well, buy a Dyson and free one of those tuners up, because you should really watch this show, if only to give me someone to talk to about it.

But first, a few disclaimers. As the overwrought title might suggest, it is not a particularly well-produced program. It's technically an hour-long drama, but once you fast-forward through all the commercials and extensive Dateline-esque "Coming Up!" bumpers, it's only thirty minutes. And while it is a reality show that follows obese teenagers at fat-camp boarding school, none of those kids is actually fifteen. I'm also not sure what exactly they're fighting back at. Poverty? Injustice? The system? Probably not. If these kids are fighting anything, it is themselves.

But the show's low production value is what makes it so good and, seemingly, one of the more "realistic" reality shows I've ever seen. Sure, the editors took some creative liberties with timing in an effort to create a story line--which is most apparent when the length of one boy's hair changes from scene to scene. But it's nice that, compared to other reality programs, there are no convoluted competitions or teams or alliances or producer-encouraged binge drinking to up the dramatic ante. It is just fat kids at boarding school. Most of them do not want to be there, yet they admit that, at home, they were teased and bullied about their weight. All of them want to lose weight, but, like adults, most struggle with committing to the actions necessary to meet their goals. It's interesting that, as kids, they don't have a lot of the fat excuses you hear from adults on The Biggest Loser, like stress at work, never taking time for themselves, baby weight, etc. While these kids sometimes whine and cry about their new fitness "program," they all seem to accept the fact that they are heavy because they eat too much and exercise too little. For me at least, it was a lesson in taking responsibility for how you got where you are, weight-wise and otherwise.

And then there's the parents. The parents--who come from a variety of backgrounds--have suffered endless criticism. I'm willing to give them a little credit. For one, they are interested in the well-being of their children. The tuition for the boarding school is more expensive than that of most universities, and one family had to cash out the father's 401K to send their 510-lb. daughter to the school. But the more you get to know the highlighted kids, the more you realize how each of their problems stems from the way they were raised. First, all of the parents are also overweight. Second, it is clear the parents expect their kids to stick to the "program" but have no intention of eating healthier themselves or exercising with the kids. As a result, most of the kids thrive while away at school but regress when back in the home, and then the parents have the nerve to criticize them for gaining weight. Why should the kids be expected to resist temptations the parents are not willing to resist (or even remove from the home)?

There are other issues. Terrina's Seminole Tribe sent her to the school. We never meet her mom but by all accounts (and all accounts are Terrina's), she's a lousy drunk and Terrina has spent her life acting up in order to get a modicum of attention. Terrina is 17 and has tattoos up and down her arms. I've got nothing against tattoos (unless they are of Looney Tunes characters, that is) but I'm surprised one could have so many before reaching the age of majority. Terrina suposedly lost a lot of weight her first year at the school, but the show begins during her second year, where her commitment is nominal at best. Although she's definitely a driven person, we're not given a lot of hope at the end of the season that she'll apply that drive to anything worthwhile.

Scotty, 13, has NEVER been told no by his mother. As a result, he has the mentality of a toddler and literally throws an embarrassing crying tantrum every time he is asked to exert himself. He loses a lot of weight at school despite giving about 30% of the effort of the other kids, but then goes home for the summer, lets everything slide, and gains 20 lbs. within a week. Mom tells him the "cheap" scale must be wrong and takes him to the doctor where they weigh him again and tell him he's gained 22 lbs. Mom theorizes the doctor's scale is also wrong, then stresses out so much about how what should have been a "happy day" for Scotty has turned bad that she starts bawling herself.

Emily is only 11, yet her wealthy parents sent her away to the boarding school, making her the youngest student there. She's basically told she will be in a boarding school-summer camp-boarding school cycle until she reaches the magical weight of 120 lbs. As you can imagine, being separated from one's family at such a young age is very difficult, and Emily struggles with homesickness like crazy. The joke's on the parents, though, because, having sent their little girl away to live with sassy teenagers, they essentially get a sassy teenager back. On her trips home, she talks back to them, swears, gets her nails done and her hair highlighted, and otherwise behaves to my great entertainment. I don't think they ever found out that she essentially went to the boarding school's version of a prom with a boy--yes, at AGE ELEVEN. She was one of my favorites, though, and she really flourished, both socially and on the program, and she lost a lot of weight.

But as much as I love Emily, nothing compares to Miss Tanisha, age 17, the most inspiring person ever to grace reality television, and the real reason to watch the show. If you don't believe me, read all these gushing comments on a Facebook fan page for her. Do you think Snooki's fan page reads like that? Because it doesn't, it really doesn't. In the first episode, Tanisha is identified as the largest student they've ever had at the school. She can barely walk due to a disease she has, compounded by her weight, and has to be driven from her dorm to the cafeteria. All the kids track their progress by how fast they can walk/run a mile--her first time it took her something like an hour and forty-five minutes. But Tanisha arrived on campus fully committed to changing her life, and her commentary is always positive rather than preachy. By the end of the season/semester, she is 130 lbs. lighter [they emphasize slow and steady weight loss on the show, so don't expect to see Biggest Loser numbers], walks everywhere, busts dance moves with her classmates and sisters, swims all the time and is just such a lovely person. When she goes home for the summer, she continues losing weight and even resists temptation on her family's many trips through fast food drive thrus (subconscious sabotage, anyone?). I dare you to watch the episode where Tanisha asks to participate in a local 5K--one which the other kids are moaning about having to participate in--and is told she can't for health/liability reasons. And I dare you to watch it without crying. I DARE YOU!

Well, I wasn't intending to recap/spoil the whole season, but whatever. For all its imperfections, I really like the show and, as I'm participating in my own "program," sometimes referred to as a "diet," it has been good to realize that if those dorky misfit chubby kids can do it, so can I.

Also, my renewed legal career has caused me to resume judging all contributions towards anything on an hourly basis, and given the hours I've "billed" to this blog post tonight, I feel good about neglecting it for another month. Happy Halloween! And, just to be safe, Happy Thanksgiving!

Time to go bill some sleep.