Mike Dow, J.J. Virgin
Regular airtime: Sundays, 10pm ET
US: 18 Jan 2010
Freaky Eaters cashes in on two popular television themes: medical mysteries and addictions. The show borrows liberally from Discovery Health’s Mystery Diagnosis and A&E’s Intervention in structure and tone, unfortunately with far less compelling results than either. As its title indicates, Freaky Eaters deals with food addictions and compulsions. Each episode focuses on one individual’s food issue over the course of one week. With the help of two health professionals—nutritionist J.J. Virgin and psychotherapist Mike Dow—the freaky eater is brought back to “food normalcy.”
No one can deny that problems like sugar addictions, food allergies, and sensitivities can wreak havoc on a person’s health. But if the purpose of this program is to draw attention to such anomalies and afford them earnest consideration, the first failing is in its title. While TLC may not be to blame for coming up with the Freaky Eaters moniker (this is an American version of BBC’s show by the same name that was canceled earlier this year), it nonetheless serves as a sort of sideshow marketing gimmick that further marginalizes a problem it is supposedly trying to legitimize. People come to freak shows to see freaks, not to understand their deeper psychological issues.
The food compulsions addressed in the first few episodes deal with addictions to cheeseburgers, sugar, and fries. The 12 September issue is “Addicted to Pizza.” In this episode, we are introduced to 21-year-old Josh, who has reportedly eaten pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the past three years. All told, Josh consumes around 470 pizzas per year, or 320 slices of pizza per month. He has also, coincidentally, been struggling with a mystery illness that has never been diagnosed, despite “countless tests and scans” performed by a series of doctors. Josh, who seems impossibly fit, all things considered, refuses to believe his diet could have anything to do with his health issues, two dots that your average third grader would have no trouble connecting.
That no doctor told Josh to stop eating pizza for every meal defies reason. It also calls into question Josh’s own credibility, or lack thereof. When Josh’s uncle asks him if he told his doctors how much pizza he eats, Josh admits he told them he eats “a lot” of pizza, but not that it was his sole food source. If he doesn’t believe his illness and diet are linked, why not come clean with the doctors? If Josh wants to be well, why wait to offer full disclosure until television cameras are rolling? It is impossible not to be reminded of Morgan Spurlock and 2004’s Super Size Me, since the method and results are much the same, though Spurlock was straightforward about his purpose.
As if a suspicion of disingenuousness in the pizza episode were not bad enough, the melodramatic narration overcompensates to the point of absurdity, especially when compared to, say, Intervention. Comments such as “And that’s when pizza became a problem” cannot be taken seriously, and neither can Josh’s claims that he “stared death in the face.” When Josh mutters a breathless “Damn!” upon seeing the 470 pizza boxes piled up in his backyard (a form of “shock therapy” according to Virgin and Dow) or seems to force a tear upon learning he has a delayed food sensitivity for cheese, Freaky Eaters takes on the air of a Saturday Night Live skit.
To be fair, J.J. Virgin’s nutrition advice is sound, if elementary (stop eating pizza; start eating vegetables) and her explanation of delayed food sensitivities helps explain the body’s physical compulsion to crave what is hurting it. But Dow’s counseling is downright unsettling, as he plants ideas and suggests causes for Josh’s pizza problem with such loaded questions as, “What is it that you needed from your mom that you felt like you weren’t getting?”
Freaky Eaters feels contrived and even sloppy. Josh contradicts his own story a few times; the entire “cast” except Josh appears in the exact same clothes throughout, though the episode supposedly transpires over a week. In the end, there is no comparing someone suffering withdrawals from heroin or meth and Josh whining, “Eating vegetables. Every day. Sucks.” Freaky Eaters not only does nothing to support its own stated cause, frankly, it’s an insult to those struggling with actual and life-threatening addictions.