Getting beyond the weight issue

It's hard not to sympathize with Ruby Gettinger. At one point, she weighed more than 700 pounds, reduced to wearing blanket-like dresses of crude fabric and barely able to move around her modest Savannah, Ga., home. Last season on "Ruby" (Style Network, Sundays at 8 p.m.), the docu-series that follows her on her weight-loss journey, she began the season near 500 pounds, and through diet and exercise, lost more than 100.

Triumph, then, would appear to be the goal of this show, along with many others that center on the struggles of the obese. "The Biggest Loser" in its myriad versions has helped cement the idea that reality competition is a welcoming home for the overweight, a theme picked up in two new shows, "More to Love" (Fox, 9 p.m. Tuesdays) and "Dance Your . . . Off" (Oxygen, 10 p.m. Mondays). Between those shows and "Ruby," there's a lot of triumph to be achieved.

But as plus-sized figures make their way more and more into reality television, what's going to be revealed should have been obvious all along: The overweight can be as petulant, small-minded and shallow as anyone else. Moving beyond stereotype has not just advantages but disadvantages as well.

Last season, when "Ruby" was largely committed to Ruby's weight loss, she was a figure beyond reproach, completely engaged with her own self-improvement and impossibly genial in the face of absurd circumstances. Well-wishers and helpers flocked to her -- friends, doctors, personal trainers and so on -- giving her an almost magical air.

This season, the charity of others becomes a more complicated proposition. At the beginning of the season, Ruby's father has just passed away, and she strays from her diet and exercise. By this season's third episode, when she recommits, she wants new things: a new exercise regimen, a long-overdue trip to the gynecologist ("the Christmas doctor," she says), a job.

But watching Ruby chase something other than a thinner waistline reveals new corners of her personality. When test-driving new employment options, as she did a few weeks ago, she was flip and uncommitted. When she finally landed a job as a receptionist at a hair salon, she was unreliable, making numerous personal calls. She coaxed a designer friend into redecorating her bedroom, then was petulant when shopping with him.

Sometimes, it's herself whom Ruby punishes, particularly in regards to Denny, her former boyfriend, whose continued presence in Ruby's life borders on sadism. He flirts with her shamelessly yet persistently reminds her she has lots of weight to lose. He buys her jeans she can't yet fit into. All in all, he pays so much attention to her while she's still overweight that it's not inconceivable he'll be completely uninterested if and when she gets thin.

Really, she should be pursuing more suitable partners, anyhow, like Luke Conley, the stocky single guy choosing from 20 curvy women on the "Bachelor" tweak "More to Love," which premiered two weeks ago. When asked what kind of woman he was attracted to by one of the contestants, he looked her up and down and side to side and proclaimed, "I like this kinda girl."

Luke is a lusty bachelor, gamely kissing any of the women who place themselves within lip range, though those moments, juxtaposed with interview segments in which the women lament how rarely men are attracted to them, can have a whiff of the emotionally manipulative about them.

Which is exactly as it should be. Any idea that the participants on this show should be jolly or benign or otherwise different from those on other dating shows is ill-founded. The women vying for his grip are, unsurprisingly, by turns insecure, catty, bawdy and cruel. And all the dating show archetypes are present and accounted for -- the one who jumps in the pool, the one who gets sick as a ploy for attention, the one who snitches on everybody else. The only thing setting "More to Love" apart is its unsurprising emphasis on food: Everyone wants to know what Luke's favorite meal is, as if he were about to be sent to the electric chair.

"More to Love" is unique among obese-themed reality programming in that it doesn't see heft as an obstacle beyond the emotional. "Dance Your . . . Off," by contrast, would prefer to see its participants ready to compete in a typical dating show by the time they're done dancing.

And yet this is a show without judgments. Even though several contestants on this competition show, in which both dance skill and weight loss are evaluated, have some sort of dance training, it's widely understood that expertise isn't the goal here. In fact, for fans of dance, watching the show would be meaningless -- there are amusing moments but few if any great ones. (More than other dancing competition shows, it recalls "Beauty and the Geek" in its reliance on the imparting of wisdom to the awkward from the contestants' genetically blessed professional dance partner-instructors.)

So why is this the most engaging and entertaining of these three shows? The show's greatest achievement is in its casting: Almost all of the contestants are exceedingly sympathetic and enthusiastic people you want to see succeed.

Ruben, one of the front-runners, has a partner at home wrestling with cancer. Pinky, a breakdancer from a breakdancing family, was always too plump to join her brother's crew. With only a couple of exceptions, these people have a single, unerring narrative: They're looking to triumph over their bodies. And when it comes to rooting for someone, complexity is only a liability.


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