Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

Calum Henderson: Reality TV finally tackles the big issue of obesity

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The Big Ward "stars" include (left to right) Maria, Pasione, Kimiora, Veronica and Josephine. Photo / Supplied
The Big Ward "stars" include (left to right) Maria, Pasione, Kimiora, Veronica and Josephine. Photo / Supplied

Watching Josephine from TV2's The Big Ward make breakfast is almost reminiscent of Nigella at her most lyrical and indulgent. "I just love the taste, the feeling of it coming down my throat," she says while blissfully stuffing KFC chicken and chips into half a baguette and topping it off with a drizzle of the Colonel's famous potato and gravy. "It puts me on Cloud Nine."

But Josephine's breakfast is more than just a guilty pleasure: it's killing her. She is one of six morbidly obese New Zealanders the 10-part documentary series follows over the course of a year before and after undergoing bariatric surgery - stomach stapling - at the Manukau SuperClinic.

"I've tried Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, the lemon diet ..." she reels off a catalogue of failed attempts at weight loss leading to this point. Surgery is seen as a last resort, but one which is becoming increasingly common as New Zealand rockets up the world obesity rankings.

Bariatric surgery is a fairly drastic procedure, as the SuperClinic's surgeon Richard Babor illustrates to potential candidates in the first episode when he draws an outline of a stomach on a whiteboard, then puts a dotted line through the 80 per cent to 90 per cent that will be removed. The average human stomach has a capacity of about 1.5 litres, he explains. The surgery will reduce that to around 200ml.

Obesity is a condition that many are quick to judge and slow to have sympathy for. Why don't they just eat less / go for a run / sort their lives out? Of course, it's seldom that simple. The Big Ward, with the sensitive narration of Robyn Malcolm, does a good job of introducing the real lives behind the eye-watering statistics.

The Big Ward's greatest achievement is simply getting a serious public health issue into a time slot usually occupied by reality shows.

Josephine's is a typically sad story. A traumatic childhood, agoraphobia, diabetes. She says eating makes her happy, but the look on her face when she says it is deeply sad. Likewise, it's hard not to feel for roadworker Nat when you see him struggling on the ventilator he uses to help combat sleep apnoea.

With a BMI of 60, Nat is considered "super super obese". He gained 100kg after a serious injury cut short his aspiring professional wrestling career, and long work hours and night shifts have also played their part. He was the first of the crew to undergo surgery. "It's going to hurt a bit," warned his mate Mili, who had the operation last year and has since lost 70kg. "But you know. Just harden up."

Maria, the other patient introduced in the first few episodes, is a more frustrating subject. A bona fide sugar addict, she makes a giddy beeline for the sweets aisle at Pak'nSave and squirrels chocolate bars and Toffee Pops away in every corner of her caravan like a grown-up version of one of the children from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A huge amount of responsibility falls on adult son Vincent to try to keep her on the straight and narrow.

Staggering the introductions of the subjects over the course of the series has meant we get a much better picture of everyone and an immediate feel for the unique challenges they face. But perhaps The Big Ward's greatest achievement is simply getting a serious public health issue into a time slot usually occupied by reality entertainment shows like Renters or Motorway Patrol.

While its hard truths don't always make for comfortable or instantly gratifying viewing, The Big Ward is still presented in a way that doesn't feel out of place at 7.30 on a weeknight. It's the TV equivalent of sneaking a big serving of vegetables into dinner.

The Big Ward, TV2, 7.30pm, Tuesdays.

- NZ Herald

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