Television review: 'Huge'

Americans are in the midst of so many crises — healthcare, economic, environmental — that it seems unfair to add another to the list. But nothing makes us crazier than fat kids. Lately we're calling it "the childhood obesity epidemic," but it's much more complicated than that.

I was a fat kid once upon a time, when fat kids were less common and easy targets for derision, Judy Blume's "Blubber" notwithstanding. Then Karen Carpenter died of anorexia and everyone began wringing their hands over the pressure put on young women to conform to a scaled-down beauty ideal. Still, for every anguished discovery that some 5-year-olds think they're too fat came imagery proving they probably were.

On TV, Courteney Cox and Calista Flockhart set a disturbing new standard for thinness. More recently, the first lady has adopted childhood obesity as her pet project, but in the media, size 0 still reigns, even as normal kids are handed Fritos after every soccer game and doctors urging lifetime moderation are drowned out by lap-band ads and "The Biggest Loser."

Into all this mess, like a hero at the eleventh hour, comes "Huge," a new drama on ABC Family that dares to portray fatness in all its physical, social and psychological layers. Based on a young adult novel by Sasha Paley, "Huge" stars "Hairspray's" Nikki Blonsky as Will (short for Wilhelmina), an angry teen banished to fat camp. She enters Camp Victory resolved to gain whatever weight her parents hope her to lose because, as she informs head mistress Dr. Rand ( Gina Torres), she is "down with my fat … my fat and I are BFFs."

Will looks at the other campers as stooges of the body fascists — she doesn't see why she should hate her own body — and is soon selling high-cal contraband to prove her point. Although some campers, including Becca ( Raven Goodwin), are impressed, most are not. Pretty blond Amber (Hayley Hasselhoff, daughter of David) quickly becomes the target of Will's disdain. Thin by fat-camp standards, Amber really wants to lose weight — she actually likes fat camp, if for no other reason than it's a place where she can act like a girl, rather than a fat girl.

But what may seem, from the trailers, as a treatise on self-acceptance is much more. "Huge" creators Savannah Dooley and Winnie Holzman ( "My So-Called Life") do not judge fat kids, but neither do they over-sentimentalize them. A panoply of personalities comes together at Camp Victory, proving that fat is only a physical description, and the writers take their time establishing character and story.

Will comes out of the box with standard-issue defiance, but eventually she emerges as neither rebel nor its typical antithesis, defensive victim. She and all the other characters are somewhere in between, actual people, girls and boys, who, for a variety of reasons, have developed a pattern of self-soothing and self-delusion that has pushed them into obesity.

If nothing else, "Huge" proves that big kids — the ones normally relegated to third banana in a teen or tween comedy — can act. The performances range from solid to downright inspired, and Blonsky has no trouble carrying early episodes. Torres has one of the harder jobs, evoking an authority figure with insecurities of her own, and occasionally the script lets her down — it's hard to imagine the head of a fat camp who is so easily rattled by fairly predictable situations. But she is dealing with her own interesting B-plot — her estranged father is now working for her — proving that those parent/child issues never go away.

It's not a perfect show — a romance blooms too early and easily between Amber and a counselor, the soundtrack is more present than it needs to be and some moments tip from poignant to overwrought. But the richness of the characters and the story make it easy to overlook the flaws.

There is laughter and there are tears, boot-camp moments and food-worshiping moments, complicated friendships and even more complicated family issues. But most important, in early episodes, there are kids. Real kids, caught in a terrible maelstrom of voices, some of whom tell them size doesn't matter while others insist that it's the only thing that matters.

The truth lies, as it usually does, somewhere in the middle. But the middle is a scary place for drama, especially teen drama, which is what makes "Huge" so extraordinary. Dooley and Holzman realize that the alternative to black and white does not have to be gray. In the midst of all the crazy yelling, the show is funny and sweet, but, more important, it makes sense. And these days, there's nothing more dramatic than that.

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