Convinced she’s doing a Hollywood self-parody, Kirstie Alley can’t get past the self part to the parody part in “Fat Actress,” her new comedy for Showtime. It’s a partly unscripted (de rigueur now) riff on Alley’s odyssey as an overweight former TV star, ex of “Cheers” and, less impressively, “Veronica’s Closet,” who is still trying to get starring work while struggling with her binge eating and ballooning figure.
That’s the premise, anyway; more immediately, “Fat Actress” is about someone indiscriminately revealing themselves at me. Though she gamely shows herself in various stages of emotional and physical undress, Alley isn’t so much exposing her vulnerabilities here as vomiting on my shoes without asking and then saying, “Thanks for letting me share.”
The very first scene is a postcard from the edge: Alley, in her bathroom, gets up off the toilet and weighs herself, then collapses into a fit of crying on her bathroom floor, writhing about in a nightgown and Ugg boots. In the middle of her crying jag, her agent calls with an offer for a Jenny Craig ad campaign, then John Travolta calls. Travolta, alarmed, calls the cops. Regaining herself, Alley goes out for a hamburger and fries, and when she gets back home Travolta and a S.W.A.T. team are outside. The cops see it’s Kirstie Alley and can’t get over how fat she’s gotten since “Cheers.”
Travolta refers Alley to a naturopath, who is played by his wife, Kelly Preston. She answers the phone as she’s getting collagen injected into her lips and tells Alley to purge with something classy, like a Mont Blanc pen.
This is the brand of celebrity self-mockery -- Alley’s and, briefly, Travolta’s and Preston’s -- that “Fat Actress,” co-created by Alley and Brenda Hampton, is trading on. But we’ve seen this too much now; even just at HBO, where the pioneer, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” has been joined by two other verisimilitude-ish Hollywood comedies, “Unscripted” and “Entourage,” the wink is getting old.
So here comes Showtime’s noise-making version of a showbiz satire, a raunchy, over-the-top comedy with Alley on display as both shame-filled former star and sexualized, plus-sized female icon. On the one hand, Alley is a brazen comedian, talented enough to play a person who’s all over the place; she’s prepossessing in a way that makes her a natural TV star. She came in as the other woman on “Cheers” after Shelley Long left and made the patrician corporate hottie Rebecca Howe work as a replacement for the lost charm of the Sam and Diane saga.
But on “Fat Actress” she assumes our sympathy without earning it; she’s going to show us the depths of her humiliation about her weight and career and we will come away thinking her funny and brave, triumphant. It’s a revenge comedy, the revenge coming at the expense of the tabloids who followed her weight gains and the industry that promotes anorexia-with-boobs as the prevailing beauty myth.
But what really feels on display in “Fat Actress” is Alley’s ego and, worse, an ingrained grandiosity masquerading as biting parody. On the show, she has an assistant (Bryan Callen) and a stylist (Rachael Harris), but despite these attempts at building a cast, the series is like a good sketch idea that Showtime is suggesting is a show. More than suggesting -- it’s ordered seven episodes.
I will now share with you the one and only scene in the pilot in which the comedy works from the first beat to the last. It’s when Alley is in her car wolfing down a burger while yelling into her cell at her agent, Sam (Michael McDonald), for not getting her a network meeting.
“John Goodman’s got his own show, and Jason Alexander looks like a frikkin’ bowling ball,” Alley shouts, her argument building steam as she idly picks burger bits from her cleavage. “And how about James Gandolfino, he’s like the size of a whale. He’s way ... way ... way fatter than I am.”
“They’re all men,” the agent says.
“I can play a man,” Alley says.
She’s got a point, of course -- not about playing a man but about the double standard in which fat actors get to be macho mob bosses and sitcom dads (with disproportionately attractive wives), while fat actresses get offered “character parts” or else ad campaigns to lose weight. That’s what apparently befell Alley in recent years, so she decided to make some changes. But why, I ask gently, is that a show? Why couldn’t it be a Learning Annex lecture or even, excuse me, nothing at all?
“Fat Actress” has the promise of an exuberant coming-out, Alley embracing her “real me.” But that “real me” seems to have an unfortunate penchant for promiscuous self-disclosure without a sense of when to pull back. (In another context, Shelly Winters did this sort of thing much more artfully on talk shows.) Watching Alley made me feel as though I were in the presence of an alcoholic who had something she wanted to tell me and tell me and tell me.
When: 10 p.m. regular time.
Ratings: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17, with advisory for coarse language)
Kirstie Alley...Kirstie Alley
Michael McDonald...Sam Raskal
Executive producers, Kirstie Alley, Brenda Hampton, Sandy Chanley. Creator, Kirstie Alley. Director, Keith Truesdell.