TV finally gets weight in focus
After years of excavating their alien habits on talk shows, and of turning weight loss into the sort of blood sport last seen in ancient Rome, television has discovered, or remembered, that fat people are human after all, with a panoply of dreams, desires, foibles and stories that often have nothing to do with their weight.
Just like all those crazy-thin people we’ve been watching for years.
Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva” broke the ice last year. Lit up by newcomer Brooke Elliott, the show wrangled its iffy conceit — an afterlife mix-up leaves a thin girl trapped in a fat girl’s body — into a surprisingly edgy comedy. This summer, ABC Family debuted “Huge,” a vehicle for “Hairspray” star Nikki Blonsky, which was no doubt the cause for much rejoicing among plus-sized thespians. Set at a fat camp, “Huge” is essentially a teen drama — with the requisite rebel, pretty girl, shy boy, tough jock, etc. — but one that also explores the complexities of childhood obesity with a clear eye and dark humor.
And this fall, pound-power comes to the networks. In CBS’ romantic comedy “Mike and Molly,” Melissa McCarthy and Billy Gardell play a fourth-grade teacher and a Boston cop, respectively, who meet at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. All three of these shows take on the emotional, social and physical difficulties of being overweight, but none of them get bogged down in the slippery excess of parody or pathos that so often accompanies current tales from the top of the scale.
For those of us long weary of seeing weight issues addressed only in extremes — by participants of “The Biggest Loser,” longtime yo-yo’ers Kirstie Alley and Carnie Wilson or stars like Courteney Cox scripted to occasionally glance in the mirror and wonder if their butts look fat — “Mike and Molly” is a beacon of hope. Not just for the contours of its stars but for its rare moment of Hollywood justice — after years energizing every show she’s been in, McCarthy (so wonderful in “Gilmore Girls” and “Samantha Who?”) finally gets center stage while comedian Gardell can finally slide out of Kevin James’ formidable shadow.
Actually, speaking of James, perhaps it’s time to clarify. When I said television has discovered that fat people are human, I mean it’s discovered that fat women and children are human. Men have always been allowed to be fat on TV. Jorge Garcia’s beloved Hurley fell in love and was a hero in two alternate worlds on " Lost.” Jackie Gleason, William Conrad and John Goodman built their careers on their wattles and prodigious guts. But can you imagine a successful detective show titled “Jake and the Fat Chick”?
Yes, there have been exceptions — Roseanne Barr blew everyone’s minds not only with tough-talking motherhood on “Roseanne” but also her character’s refusal to obsess, or even care much, about her weight. But that show ended 13 years ago, and since then obesity has become a national crisis, with fat Americans increasingly treated as if they were a separate, possibly contaminant species — one study recently suggested that hanging out with fat people could make you fat. Oh, the media tries to get to the bottom of things, portraying the overweight as either unwitting pawns in a game of world domination played by the various purveyors of salt and high fructose corn syrup, or as addicts caught in a body-inflating cycle of defiance and shame.
But the idea that those with high body fat indexes also have jobs and love lives, that they raise children and make art, travel, sing and have pets, endure non-weight-related tragedy and triumph, has been lost in the clamor over calories.
Fat became a polarizing political issue, dieting an area of expertise, with deniers and professional proponents. Just as stars including Alley and Oprah Winfrey were derided for weight gain, those who lost weight — opera star Deborah Voight, America Ferrera, even Kate Winslet — were often criticized for succumbing to the corseted standards of Hollywood.
On television, reality shows including “The Biggest Loser” and " Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” though noble in their goal of catalyzing audiences to adopt healthier lifestyles, often presented participants more as worst-case scenarios than people, requiring public self-renunciation and emotional breakdown as part of what has become the standard narrative arc of rehab.
That the tactics employed by these shows — A-list trainers, personalized dietary attention and, above all, the relentless eye of the camera — make the weight loss they celebrate just as weird, and unattainable by the average person, as an Oscar nominee dropping 30 pounds in time to walk the red carpet mere weeks after giving birth, seems to bother no one but me.
Yet these shows are probably the reason “Drop Dead Diva,” “Huge” and “Mike and Molly” exist: For years, TV executives assumed that audiences simply could not bear the sight of fat women on TV, except in the role of funny best friend/neighbor/mother-in-law. A plus-sized romantic lead? Only if it was part of the joke, as in “Ugly Betty,” and even then only if she agreed to take off 20 pounds.
Of course, none of the characters on the new shows take their fat lightly. Gone is Roseanne’s muffin-top-pride and devotion to pulled pork. (Barr herself had a gastric bypass a year after the show ended.) On all of the new shows, everyone is trying, to one extent or another, to eat more greens and less cake.
But the pounds come off slowly, if they come off at all, and that is not the only thing the characters are trying to do. Although all of these shows address weight with a refreshing directness, none of them, not even “Huge,” appear to be a chronicle of weight-loss. Elliott enters Season 2 of “Drop Dead Diva” seemingly the same size she was in Season 1, if much better accessorized. Overweight is just one part of who these people are, losing weight just one of the things they would like to experience in their lives.
Which makes these dramas closer to real than any reality show around.