MTV's 'Fat Camp': Winning Losers With a Lot to Gain

Dianne dissolves into tears for the umpteenth time, above, and Petey awaits a reprimand in the camp director's office in MTV's
Dianne dissolves into tears for the umpteenth time, above, and Petey awaits a reprimand in the camp director's office in MTV's "Fat Camp," tonight at 9. (Mtv Photos)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tucked in among the trashy pranks and fanzine foolishness of MTV can be found some of the brightest, sharpest documentaries on television. That is true not so much of the network's "reality" series -- "Pimp My Ride" is trippy but frivolous, and "Real World" keeps spewing overheated and recycled gossip -- but now and then, along will come a stand-alone production as earnest, affecting and unflinching as "Fat Camp."

The recorded saga is an account of one summer at a spot in the Poconos where teenagers try their damnedest to shed weight, going through aches and agonies both psychological and physical.

The show, airing tonight at 9, plunges right into the essence of the matter without any elaborate introductions -- no statistics on overweight kids or other generalities -- and tells its stories with no narration. As always, certain characters emerge and stand out from the crowd. Among them is Braelyn, who is struggling to make it as a counselor but faces demotion to being just another camper. There is also Dianne, whose mother works at the camp, who tends to deal with most problems by weeping profusely, and who bears an unfortunate resemblance to serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

Some of them will live through success stories, some will fight the system and lose everything but weight, some will become embroiled in sultry, hot-weather romances. Even though one camper posts a sign that says "Drama-Free Zone," the atmosphere lends itself to emotional turmoil: The kids are all at tender ages, they live in a culture that prizes and glorifies physical perfection above everything else (with the exception of wealth); and they have all had their fair shares of abuse along the way.

"It's hard, it's hard," Dianne sobs early in the program, and one can believe it. Viewers who share the problems of those in the documentary probably will come away from the program feeling less isolated, less "different" from those who are considered normal. But young viewers who stand to gain the most are those whose complaints about their own looks are relatively minor -- those who go into agony over the occasional zit, or who lament that they aren't as "hot" as they want to be. They'll see what it's like to feel truly ostracized and alienated.

On their first day at the camp, the kids are told, "You are going to be very surprised at what you are capable of doing." Stay with them through the ups and downs of the next couple of hours -- covering eight weeks -- and you can share the elation of those who've buckled down and made the most of the opportunity. One girl loses just more than 16 pounds, and a 268-pound boy drops to 181 -- seven pounds beyond what his most optimistic goal had been.

Some leave the camp early, crying and carping about the unfairness of it all, while others see it through to the end, even though there appears to be little in the way of mollycoddling or hand-holding. Says a boy whose weight loss has resulted in a fairly radical change in appearance: "This summer has been probably the best summer in my life." And he vows that when he gets home, and back to school in the fall, "I'm going to lose the rest of the weight."

The camp is by no means a spa. Nobody's treated to mud baths or low-fat haute cuisine. Emotional tension runs high, and inevitably cliques and factions form. Poor Dianne, who could turn a hangnail into a catastrophe, goes into a rant when she discovers that other girls in her cabin are complaining about her reluctance to shower. "Just tell me I stink and I'll take a [expletive] shower!" she shouts -- in tears, of course.

The adults in charge are anything but gentle in doling out reprimands to those who've screwed up -- who've sneaked off the campgrounds to score an illicit Twinkie or who duck behind a tree so they can puff away on a cigarette. If it seems they are all expected to lose weight the hard way, one has to remember a depressing truth: There is no easy way.

Slotting "Fat Camp" opposite NBC's Olympics, with all those perfectly defined and high-definition bodies, is a sly bit of ironic counterprogramming. MTV's show offers as much drama and trauma as the Olympics do, and a considerable amount of heartbreak besides.

Whatever editorial decisions its producers made, and however they might have tweaked certain stories to make them stronger, "Fat Camp" is touchingly and sometimes gruelingly true to life.

Fat Camp (2 hours) airs tonight at 9 on MTV.

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