In case you’ve missed the entertainment buzz lately, we are in the midst of mini-boomlet of teleseries devoted to fat Americans. I’m not talking about “reality” sideshows like The Biggest Loser, but actual scripted TV comedies and dramas focusing on plus protagonists. It’s an intriguing trend to consider when you take into account the increased media ballyhoo about the elevating BMI in this country. On the one hand, you have scolds bemoaning how “unhealthy” and out-of-shape everybody has gotten; on the other, you have series devoted to the radical idea that fat folk are people, too.
To these eyes, the dramedy to beat remains Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva, the fantasy (now in its second season) about a young would-be model who dies and comes back to life in the body of an older, fatter lady lawyer. Within its Heaven Can Wait premise is a theme that easily relatable: the idea of a once-thin woman coming to terms with the fact that she’s ten years older and considerably fatter. The route Diva’s Jane Bingum (the very appealing Brooke Elliot) takes is one toward self-acceptance, and while the series isn’t without its squishy Lifetime moments, as a whole the trip proves an enjoyable one.
On the other side, ABC Family’s new summer series, Huge, opens with a much more conservative set-up. Set at Camp Victory, a fat camp where a variety of portly to super-sized teens have been shipped by their parents to shed weight, the series centers on Willamina (Hairspray’s Nikki Blonski), a purple-haired teen who comes to camp with a chip on her large shoulder. “Me and my fat are like BFF,” she tells a counselor, and though she talks a good rebellion, it’s clear that she’s more than a little jealous of Amber (Hayley Hasselhoff), the zaftig blond who is easily the thinnest plump girl in the camp — and the one who gets all the looks from all the boys in camp.
To its credit, Huge (adapted from a novel by Sasha Paley) takes a setting that could be an excuse for an endless array of fat jokes and examines it from a healthy variety of different perspectives. Though it’s laid out fairly early that the majority of these kids have been set to Camp Victory by their parents, the degree to which each camper buys into the Thin=Health+Happiness equation varies. At one end, you have contrarian Will, who jokes that she’s come to camp to gain weight not lose it and who makes like Eric Cartman selling smuggled candy to her fellow campers. On the other, you have Amber, who tells us, “I’ve been dieting since I was ten; it’s probably the only thing I’m good at.” Amber has so bought into the Thin Is Beautiful line that she posts magazine shots of anorexic models by her bunk for “thinspiration.”
In between, there are campers like Becca (Raven Goodwin), a repeat visitor who gained all the weight back that she lost the summer before, and Ian (Ari Stidham), the guitar-strummin’ alt-rock fan, who was okay with being fat as long as he wasn’t the fattest kid in his school. Then there’s Caitlin (Molly Tarlov), the quiet girl who’s revealed to have an eating disorder. When sent out of the camp after her purging is reported to hard-nosed camp supervisor Dr. Rand (Gina Torres), we’re told that home with her parents is not the place she should be. Though the statement isn’t explained, those of us with memories of Roseanne Barr’s revelations about her personal history might start wondering where that particular statement came from.
Where Huge’s first ep runs the biggest risk of falling into the same ol’ fat stereotypes, though, is in the subplot where Will sells her cache of junk food to the other kids in camp. The sequences are initially played as a joke (“Are you holding?” one camper asks our heroine). But, while some viewers may view it as a Lookit How Them Fatties Don’t Have Any Will-Power moment, I took it differently: as a typical adolescent reaction against authority and as recognition of the fact that when you take anything away completely, that one thing becomes more important than it ever was.
Still, are times you can’t help wishing one of the series’ plus-sized characters stood up for themselves in way that went past Willamina’s reactive teenage posing. So that when Torres’ Dr. Rand rather disingenuously asserts that Camp Victory’s focus is on health, not weight loss, someone could've answered, “What makes you so certain that I can’t be fat and healthy?” I know: it’s a bit much to expect from a group of young characters who’ve heard nothing but Loath Your Body messages all their life. But the day we actually get a character self-confident enough to assertively challenge the Conventional Wisdom about Fat+Health+Happiness — that is the day Fat Teevee becomes truly provocative.