In many other territories, the nannying, TV health show format has long had its day. There’s been neither hide nor hair of Gillian McKeith; The Biggest Loser lolloped into the sunset in the US in 2016. Fitspo these days is more likely to come from lithe, Insta stars FaceTuned to the excessively bleached back teeth, rather than average people on a much more challenging, rewarding crusade.
And yet closer to home, Operation Transformation (RTÉ1, 9.35pm, Wednesday), which debuted on RTÉ back in 2008, remains one of the broadcaster’s great juggernauts. Unlike many of its leaders – the term given to the plus-sized participants of the programme – the show has been fairly nifty on its feet, piling new gimmick onto fresh-faced expert with every passing year.
The show’s recently implemented interactive element, encouraging viewers to participate with activities and eating plans, certainly helps to fend off any potential accusations of voyeuristic obesity tourism.
There’s plenty of lip service paid to the nation’s wellbeing, what with cheerleading apps, jumping jacks during the commercial break, supermarket partnerships. But at its heart, Operation Transformation is primarily an entertainment series. And man, are they bringing the feels this year.
As tropes go, the heartstring-jangling backstory is the beating heart of any reality series. Get Sigur Ros or a lone piano to do much of the emotional spadework, add some insert shots of people looking determinedly-slash-reflectively out into the middle distance, and you’re good to go.
For Operation Transformation , the gist of each leader’s introduction runs much the same. Host Kathryn Thomas appears in doorways from Tubbercurry to Youghal, often to be met with a jaunty, personable homeowner.
It doesn’t take long for the jolly veneer to dissolve, and to get to the ostensible cause of each person’s excessive weight gain problem.
Pamela Swayne puts cream and cheese in her curry. Cathal Gallagher was given a Chinese curry once in hospital, sparking a lifelong love affair. Stressed shop owner Paul Murphy has all the fizzy drinks and chocolate he could want within reach, and habitually eats like a 4th class youngster on school tour.
Cue several boilerplate shots of each leader wolfing down their calorie-laden drug of choice, dead-eyed. Resigned. Seemingly powerless against its soporific lull.
Yet it’s in psychologist Eddie Murphy’s circle of truth that the horsepower of Operation Transformation lies, for leader and viewer alike. For some participants, there’s the realisation of deep-seated issues, for others, it’s the acknowledgment of past trauma. Vulnerability, humanity and helplessness is writ large here; no Sigur Ros necessary.
“If you feel so low, you won’t let anyone in,” admits teacher Siobhan, referring to dating.
“I don’t think I’m worth it,” Cathal admits.
Paul, mindful of his young children, doesn’t want to die young like his own father did.
Yet it’s effervescent Jean Tierney’s recent experience of miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy and infant death, in three separate pregnancies, that’s likely to stick in the viewers’ memory. “I just want to feel like my body is mine again for a little while,” she notes.
It’s a stirring moment of television, as unexpected as it is emotive.
The undiluted, up-to-11 poignancy of the leaders’ backstories is soon cut through with a sobering numbers game. There’s something vaguely paternalistic, and not a little chilly, about the four experts (Aoife Hearne, newcomer Sumi Dunne, Eddie Murphy and Karl Henry) delivering their verdicts on each person’s health, none of which is especially positive.
There are megasized waistlines, off-the-chart body fat percentages and geriatric fitness levels galore. There’s no hand-holding or patronising back slapping here; not yet, anyway.
Ireland’s Got Talent (For Losing Weight), this ain’t. And so, for the leaders, and the experts’ positivity levels for that matter, the only way from here is up.