Style, which is part of NBCUniversal’s E! group of cable channels, is airing new seasons of two obesity shows that somewhat redeem the reality genre, at least for me.
One is “Ruby” (airing Sunday nights), an epic, heartfelt story of a very large Savannah, Ga., woman, now in its fourth season. The other is “Too Fat for 15: Fighting Back” (now in its second season, Monday nights), a frank study of the lives of students and teachers at a North Carolina boarding school for overweight kids.
Both shows exhibit reality TV’s rarest virtues: patience and depth. The producers of “Ruby” have shown the sort of multi-year commitment usually seen in documentary filmmaking, sticking with one person and one story that, on its surface, seems to go nowhere. Their subject, 48-year-old Ruby Gettinger, has so far failed to provide the triumphant weigh-ins that would more closely hew to the network’s motto, “Before Meets After.” With Ruby it seems there will never be an “after.”
But by keeping at it and documenting her endlessly renewable resolutions to confront her personal demons and lose weight, Style has elevated the show into a compellingly thorough character study, something you almost never see in a TV era that demands breakneck narrative speed. The show does provide requisite tidbits about nutrition, exercise and lifestyle, but it mainly focuses on Ruby’s sweet-natured yet deeply damaged psyche.
Granted, the character in this study is a flawed one. Viewers first met Ruby when she weighed 477 pounds. (Down from an all-time high that topped 700 pounds.) Over three seasons she dieted and exercised her way to a low of 302 pounds, which was enough to trade in her circus-tent wardrobe for pants, but still far too heavy for good health. At first blush, Ruby presents as a simple woman who relies on her lifelong friends for support— one of whom, Georgia, dutifully spray-tans a naked Ruby every couple of weeks.
When it became clear that “Ruby” was not going to be a transformation show, viewers might have abandoned it in droves. They didn’t.
Season four finds Ruby depressingly back up to 335, preoccupied with recovering memories of her childhood, which she has all but blocked. Though it is plain to everyone around her that Ruby was sexually and/or physically abused as a child — past seasons followed Ruby home as she searched for clues to this — she is still tentatively poking around the edges of that fact, through group and individual therapy sessions.