Huffpost Business
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Peter S. Goodman Headshot

Poverty Porn? 'Remake America' Serves Up Household Struggle As TV Fare

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

As if we needed further proof that everything is now fair game for televised entertainment, two producers behind the wildly successful weight-loss reality show "The Biggest Loser" are creating a new series that will depict the lives of ordinary Americans struggling with the wreckage of the Great Recession.

The new show, "Remake America," will follow the lives of eight families contending with some version of commonplace financial tragedy, casting director Kelly Castillo tells The Huffington Post. The families will appear on camera, though they will primarily tell their stories through blogging. The show is to be distributed online, she says, via an as-yet undisclosed major website.

"We are looking for people who are just kind of living paycheck to paycheck," Castillo says. "Maybe they had it all and maybe lost it all. Maybe they are facing foreclosure, or they are pregnant and they don't know how they will pay their hospital bills. They are faced with tough decisions: Does Mom go back to work and leave her kids with nannies to try to make ends meet? Or maybe they are offered a job that pays more, but then they have to go off food stamps. Maybe the person is going to have to work the rest of their lives without retirement."

Television is, if nothing else, a lens on what ordinary people are obsessing about at any given point in time (as well as a commercially motivated source of many of those obsessions), so the existence of "Remake America" seems inevitable. Back when money flowed freely and flipping real estate seemed like national sport, television served up reality shows in which regular people bought and sold properties as if they were pieces on a Monopoly board. The tacit message of those shows: Anyone who was not doing likewise was failing to harvest the booty that was just lying out in the cul-de-sac for the taking.

"Remake America" provides a neatly symmetrical bookend on that era, a show that examines what came of all the speculation and lunacy: foreclosure, bankruptcy and a financial crisis that delivered the worst economic downturn since the Depression. In suburban communities that once hummed with real estate schemes juiced by no-documents-required mortgages, people are now filling out the paperwork for food stamps. The same people who used to tap home equity loans to buy new cars are now driving those vehicles to the local food bank.

You must admire the creative impulses capable of mining household disaster for fodder to capture eyeballs and sell product. (One imagines ads for predatory loan modification companies and dubious bankruptcy prevention services.) The brains behind "Remake America," Mark Koops and Jared Tobman, have demonstrated a keen ability to turn the problems of others into entertainment for the masses (and loot for themselves). On "The Biggest Loser," they present morbidly obese people as grotesque spectacles, much like performers in a circus freak show. Contestants are run through grueling paces by a team of trainers and placed by supposed nutritional experts on diets that dramatically reduce their caloric intake, enabling them to shed weight at seemingly record speed.

In short, the "Biggest Loser" is weight-loss porn, its teaser ads alone capturing the attention of channel-surfing rubberneckers. From the look of the show's website, which seeks families willing to open up their lives, "Remake America" appears to be poverty porn, gritty slices of life aimed at our innermost voyeuristic tendencies.

The show's producers say that's not so, portraying their show as a genuine effort to call attention to the economic crisis gripping the nation, while also offering help. They plan to bring in experts and have them advise the families on the show on how to better manage their finances, train for new jobs, write resumes and navigate job interviews. They also aim to create a platform for viewers to chime in with their own tips.

"We like to create shows that have a heart and have social significance," Tobman says over the phone from Los Angeles, where his production company, Trium Entertainment, is based. "We want to tell great stories about real people and give stories that people are going to be talking about during the election next year a face and a heart."

That by itself is a laudable goal. Anything that raises consciousness about the wholesale erosion of middle-class opportunities is welcome. Yet the show runs the risk of reinforcing a false narrative that is complicating efforts to fix the problems besetting American life. If eight families suffering the strains of the downturn can be fixed up through a little expert guidance and some community pep rallying, that implies that other people whose lives have yet to be fixed up simply aren't doing the right things. They could be working, sparing their homes from foreclosure, and coming up with the dollars to pay their medical bills if only they weren't so misguided.

This kind of thinking appeals to the American spirit, the part that was raised on the frontier and is susceptible to the notion that ours is a land of unlimited opportunity. Anyone can make it if they try. The problem is the bogus offshoot of this traditional belief: Anyone who isn't making it must not be trying hard enough or doing the right things. Systemic problems are reduced to matters of personal responsibility.

"The Biggest Loser" has been rightfully pilloried by the medical establishment for suggesting that the cure for obesity is to nearly starve oneself while subjecting one's heart to dangerous strain through excessive amounts of exercise. The cure for extreme eating is not moderation and regular exercise but extremism of another dangerous variety.

Tobman dismisses such criticism, claiming that the show is a force for good simply by bringing needed attention to obesity. "It uses familiar reality television tropes, but ultimately its core is about helping people change their lives," he says. "We are proud of that."

But the biggest problem with "The Biggest Loser" isn't its craven sensationalism. It's how it reinforces the personal responsibility narrative. To watch the show is to absorb its implicit message that fat people are fat because of their own individual choices, and never mind the high-fructose corn syrup industry and its formidable lobby, injecting its toxins into every crevice of our culinary lives. Never mind that many people are working two jobs and driving vast distances to get to them, depriving them of time and energy to cook, and making fast food -- with its cheap, instantly gratifying, and ubiquitous calories -- seem like the best among a set of poor options for sustenance.

In short, never mind the systemic forces that make widespread obesity seem like the unavoidable by-product of broad societal choices about work, transportation and corporate strategy. Fatness is an individual failing.

The worry here is that Tobman and his partner are about to impose a similarly misleading treatment on the millions of people caught up in the crisis of joblessness, homelessness and foreclosure. The show's subjects surely are deserving of our sympathy, people we ought to help, yet they will also be cast as people who ultimately hold the power to step out of their circumstances if they simply pursue the right strategy and listen to the right experts.

What seems likely to get lost is how all this hardship came about, that the plight to be depicted on the show is an outgrowth of broad systemic forces: the decline of organized labor and the spread of work to lower-cost countries; a failure to tax wealthy people adequately; a failure to address the rising cost of health care and higher education; the embrace of crackpot ideas about laissez faire capitalism, which enabled predatory lending and the disastrous real estate bubble that produced the financial crisis.

Millions of people who already know how to write resumes and have college degrees cannot get jobs that pay even modest bills because our engine of economic growth has broken down and our political leaders are missing in action. Feel-good stories about community generosity only distract from this reality and the work needed to fix it.

In the end, "Remake America" may be the wrong title, because the mentality it risks reinforcing -- the idea that failure is personal and not systemic -- only serves to make America more like it is already: hiding from the reckoning that is upon us and from the imperative to get serious about generating millions of jobs, while reaching instead for the remote to watch something amusing on the screen.