At more than four hours, “The Weight of the Nation” — HBO’s do-gooder documentary about the U.S.’ obesity epidemic, mounted in concert with multiple health organizations — is, pardon the expression, a little flabby. Still, this multimedia endeavor delivers a powerful and important message, one that has become oddly politicized (more on that shortly) in today’s polarized climate. Amid recent studies on the issue’s societal repercussions, this comprehensive project ought to be required viewing, while representing the higher calling of a pay channel not reliant on fast-food or soft-drink ads.HBO periodically throws its own considerable weight behind such ambitious public-policy or social exercises, and at first blush, one might think this one is a no-brainer. Alas, not so. Since First Lady Michelle Obama began campaigning against childhood obesity, conservatives have reflexively opposed such initiatives as symbols of government intrusion, apparently under the “We’re American; we have a God-given right to be fat and eat junk food” cry of liberty. For the most part, “Weight of the Nation” seeks to be evenhanded, without being shrill or indulging in excessive finger-pointing. That said, it’s clearly a piece of advocacy for a stronger, better-orchestrated response — including a governmental role — to address what’s increasingly labeled an “epidemic.” Spread over two nights, part three of the four-chapter presentation, “Children in Crisis,” deals most directly with the problem’s legislative aspect. The struggles of kids prove especially poignant, and will be accompanied by a separate three-part series beginning May 16, designed for them. Interviewees include a variety of medical experts — speaking bluntly about causes and potential solutions — as well as ordinary folk grappling with obesity. Taking a broader view, the producers also do a fine job capturing how various trends have conspired to create a “toxic lifestyle,” from less physical activity to a premium on time and that has led to greater consumption of cheaper, faster, processed food — often in restaurants serving much larger portions than necessary. The second hour, “Choices,” proves the most practically useful, exploring programs for achieving weight loss — and singling out how harmful much of the “magic cure” information disseminated through media can be. “I cringe when I see ‘The Biggest Loser,’” says gastroenterologist Samuel Klein. “Weight of the Nation” also delves into genetic and socioeconomic factors, from identical twins at different weights to the extraordinarily high obesity rates in disadvantaged Santa Ana compared with the rest of Orange County, though even more affluent areas are seeing an increase in obesity as well. One expert refers to the trend as “an enormously complex problem,” and “Weight of the Nation” reflects that. Even so, a first step would obviously be to acknowledge it as such, which isn’t easy given how much various parties have invested in the status quo. Like many HBO documentaries, this one seeks to inform, inspire and perhaps even anger, rousing a citizenry from its complacency and unhealthy habits like drinking sugary beverages, from which average Americans derive nearly half their calories. Spending four hours on the couch watching it certainly ought to open some eyes. The real question is how many people this sort of effort can motivate to constructive action — as opposed to just another trip to the refrigerator.
HBO, Mon. May 14, 8 p.m.
Produced by HBO Documentary Films and the Institute of Medicine in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes for Health, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Kaiser Permanente. Executive producers, Sheila Nevins, John Hoffman; producers, Hoffman, Paula Heredia, Dan Chaykin, Sarah Teale; directors, Chaykin.
Camera, Dyanna Taylor; editors, Jennifer McGarrity, Heredia, Charlton McMillan, Bruce Shaw; music, Wendy Blackstone, Adam Dorn, Daniel Freiberg. 4 HOURS, 30 MINS.
Data provided by:Nielsen Media Research (Preliminary Results)