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Reality TV weighs in on obesity

With CBS having washed its hands of "Two and a Half Men" star Charlie Sheen, the network has moved on to Plan B.

The episodes that were supposed to be getting made now will be replaced with extra episodes of other shows, including TV's top-rated new sitcom, "Mike & Molly."

"Mike & Molly" is hilarious, and I would not be heartbroken if "Two and a Half Men" went away. But this turn of events does neatly underscore a harsh truth about obesity in America.

Unlike Sheen, the vast majority of us do just fine without cocaine. (Only 1.5 percent of young adults reported using the drug in 2009, the lowest level in years.) But we all depend on food, and this, it seems, has muddled our view toward those who depend on it too much.

These days, that's most of us. More than half the country is overweight, and some 72 million Americans meet the definition of obesity.

There are, in fact, more TV shows about obesity than ever. Most are reality shows centered on weight loss.

All borrow a basic set of assumptions from "The Biggest Loser": Obesity is largely a product of inertia, of spending too much time sitting around eating terrible food. The cure, therefore, is activity - lots of it, with occasional breaks to make healthy meals and visits to the confession-cam.

The knockoffs salt in a few elements from other reality shows. The CW's "Shedding for the Wedding," for instance, pits couples as teams against each other, "Amazing Race"-style, as they compete to win aspects of their dream ceremony (see "Whose Wedding Is It, Anyway?"). MTV's "I Used to Be Fat" is done verite-style, like "Teen Mom" and "True Life." A&E's "Heavy" is "Hoarders" for the morbidly obese.

Unfortunately, much of the show's energy is invested in the challenges for wedding bling, and this lack of focus cost the contestants dearly at last week's weigh-in. More than half the couples had lost six pounds or less - that's two people combined. "Biggest Loser" trainer Jillian Michaels would've thrown a fit.

"Heavy" is the show that comes the closest to equating food with any other substance that people abuse.

The title speaks to its tone. And yet, it too is strangely unsatisfying, for the same reasons "Hoarders" is. The camera spends way too much time establishing that something is wrong here, without really dwelling on what.

"Heavy" is mostly about people using exercise equipment in much the same way that guests of the Spanish Inquisition once used the rack. Even I felt sore after watching it.

You'd never know from these shows that the role of intensive exercise in weight loss is actually controversial. Studies in peer-reviewed journals question whether a lifestyle full of little motions might not do a better job at curbing obesity. Yes, taking the stairs might be better than a StairMaster. That way, the metabolism doesn't get all fired up and demand a caloric reward.

Speaking of calories, menus definitely take a back seat to workouts in the editing of these shows. Perhaps that's because food remains such a personal choice, influenced by family, culture and - dare we say it? - one's private demons.

On this matter, the weight-loss shows fall largely silent. And that, I suspect, is because our culture is still struggling to talk frankly about why so many of us are killing ourselves with food. It's interesting to contrast cultural depictions of food abuse with those of alcohol abuse.

You see a few fun drunks on TV these days, but not many. As a society we understand that people who drink to excess are battling demons. But not even "The Biggest Loser" has figured out a way to go there with food addictions.