'Fat Actress': Jolly-Unsaturated

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2005

Kirstie Alley bravely suffers innumerable indignities in her new Showtimes series, "Fat Actress," but it's not much fun to suffer them with her. An awkward mixture of reality show, satirical autobiography and vanity production, the comedy chronicles Alley's battle with her body, an entity which has grown in size like one of those voracious radioactive monsters in sci-fi films of the '50s.

The first five minutes of the series, premiering at 10 tonight, are either daringly or foolishly off-putting. We encounter Alley sitting on a closed toilet and making hoarse, ghastly otherworldly yelps of despair. She forces herself onto a scale, looks at the readout and collapses to the bathroom floor, weeping childishly and screeching piercingly as she crawls, slowly, to a phone.

It is, admittedly, funny when the voice on the other end of the line asks, "How's your diet going?" Clearly, not well. Meanwhile, neighbor John Travolta, as himself, either having mistaken the word "burger" for "burglar" or because Alley's shrieks were so hugely chilling, has called the SWAT team, which later surrounds the house.

Millions of Americans can, of course, identify with the problem of being overweight, present company anything but excluded. But as she plays herself here, Alley isn't just overweight, she's a bona fide fat slob, gorging on perpetual snacks even to the point of, in the second episode, scarfing down potato chips as she is driven in her Mercedes convertible to a business lunch. Although such show-biz fatties as Jason Alexander and James Gandolfini are prospering, Alley notes, her career has hit a slump as deep as the dent she makes in a sofa.

Even so, rooting for her, though it would seem the natural thing to do, is awfully difficult considering how vulgar, silly and shrill the real Alley has made the TV Alley. When at one point she boasts, "I carried 'Cheers,' " one can't be 100 per cent positive if Alley is spoofing an actor's ego or just displaying one. And it's not just that she's fat; her face has taken on threatening, demonic features, and she's always pushing her sloppy hair out of her eyes. She's a Disney cartoon villain in three, or four, dimensions.

The series's structure and setting were clearly inspired by Larry David's heroically hilarious "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which is an HBO entry and thus appears only for weeks at a time and then disappears for what seems like years at a time. But where David is adroitly self-effacing, and even self-defacing, Alley appears to be shooting in all directions; everybody in her little world is deceptive, fake and brutally ruthless. Her assistant, though crisply played by Bryan Callen, is a sleazy, name-dropping sycophant who tries to score his own acting gigs behind Alley's back.

As on David's show, real Hollywood people play themselves, sometimes warts and all or, as in the case of NBC Universal executive Jeff Zucker, accurately as one big wart. Even in a consummately creepy "creative" community, Zucker is conspicuous by his meretricious vulgarity.

In addition to Travolta and Zucker, others appearing as themselves in the first two episodes include Carmen Electra, Kid Rock and the director known as McG, who casts Alley in a "Charlie's Angels" sequel thinking she is not fat but pregnant, and only because he's being blackmailed.

Many of the details are indeed mortifyingly funny and outrageous: Alley dashing repeatedly away from a restaurant table because a friend has advised her to gorge on laxatives; Alley matter-of-factly removing the Lane Bryant labels from her clothing and replacing them with Prada; Alley attempting to induce vomiting by sticking a pussy willow stem down her throat. As you can tell, Alley gets most of the funny business, but then she produces and writes the show (with Brenda Hampton).

One perplexing note about the casting: Though various stars of dubious renown play themselves, Phil Morris, a gifted and widely recognizable actor, is cast anonymously as "Man at Counter" in a restaurant scene. Morris absolutely immortalized himself playing the Johnnie Cochrane-like lawyer in several episodes of "Seinfeld" and has appeared in countless other productions.

Why can't he be Phil Morris as Phil Morris? It's especially troubling since he's African American and the scene he's in is set in a restaurant specializing in African American cuisine.

The things that are funny about "Fat Actress" aren't funny enough--and too many other things about it are sad.

Fat Actress, 30 minutes, airs at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

Kirstie Alley's new comedy series on Showtime is thick with everything but laughter.

Kirstie Alley with singer Kid Rock, one of many guest stars playing themselves on "Fat Actress." It's a show that's not quite funny enough.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company