Shows about overweight people often gorge on easy ratings and exploit our tendency to derive pleasure by judging the misery of others. Viewers find it difficult to resist the buffet, from NBC’s waning primetime hit “The Biggest Loser” all the way down to TLC’s obsessive specials (“Half-Ton Teen” and such). We stare with mouths agape, which is handy for those of us who suffer the munchies while watching that stuff.
No one comes out looking pretty in the exchange, but once in a while such shows achieve a quiet nobility and even beauty.
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.
For less patient viewers, Ruby can seem willfully melodramatic, if not strangely pathetic. She has a euphemism for everything (at the gynecologist’s office, she refers to key parts of her private region as “Christmas”; she often describes herself as “hacky,” a combination of happy and wacky) and most of her sentences are punctuated or prefaced with a long, whiny “y’allllllll.”
As with most reality shows, you’ll often wonder if Ruby isn’t caught in a cycle of neediness. Does she sabotage her diet in order to prolong the attention she gets from the show? Does she avoid the abuse issues because of the reliable hugs from her support group? Her friends and trainers are beginning to ask such questions, too.
After all, “Ruby” has turned its star into a minor celebrity in the inspirational weight-loss business. The show earns some of Style’s highest ratings, with as many as a half-million viewers per episode; many post emotionally supportive notes to Ruby on the show’s Web site. Ruby now luxuriates in a marshmallowy cocoon of affirmation.
What I like about the show is its gentle approach, with a minimum amount of producer interference apparent in so many other series. Ultimately, this is a portrait of a real American, who will probably never lose that weight, smothering under her own issues yet surrounded by the love and Southern comfort that only lap dogs, friends and fat-free snack food can provide.
Better still is the restraint and good sense shown by the producers of “Too Fat for 15,” which shuns exploitation at every turn. Set at the Wellspring Academy in rural North Carolina (monthly tuition, before scholarship aid: $6,500), the show focuses on a half-dozen adolescents, ranging from sixth- to 12th-graders, who struggle with obesity.
The show’s hero is a Tanisha Mitchell, a Prince George’s County teenager who started out last year at 510 pounds and has shed 160 pounds. With each pound gone, we see a little more of the young woman who is emerging. In the school’s pond or swimming pool, Tanisha discovers the freedom of weightlessness. An underwater camera shows how swimming turns her corpulent body into a work of art, and it’s a beautiful surprise.
Back on dry land, of course, “Too Fat for 15” is a constant struggle, filled with teens who must be vigilantly goaded into walking up hills and choosing the right foods. But unlike so many other fatty shows, “Too Fat for 15” measures progress beyond the scale.
(one hour) airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Style.
(one hour) airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on Style.