TV Preview: ABC's 'Huge,' raising a crop of cliches, down on the fat farm

The series, starring Nikki Blonsky of "Hairspray" fame, follows a group of overweight teens at a summer weight-loss camp. Based on Sasha Paley's young-adult novel of the same name, the show has funny moments, but it's actually pretty grim. It premieres on June 28 at 9 p.m. ET.
By Tom Shales
Monday, June 28, 2010

Isn't it about time that this "fat" thing played itself out and we all moved on to some other neurotic national obsession?

Fat -- as a subject of discussion, gossip and social concern -- comes at us from every cranny of media and now the White House, and some of the same people who have earned fortunes making America perhaps the fattest country on Earth now make new fortunes selling fat cures. Just like the credit card companies, which seduced millions into burying themselves in mountains of debt and now operate a sideline industry of bad-credit cures.

"Huge," a new drama series from the ABC Family cable network, seeks to cash in on the fatness thing one more time. Nikki Blonsky, whose insipid grin became a tormenting horror in the movie-musical "Hairspray," has wiped that smile off her face and gone from dopey to mopey, now playing a woman named Will (for Willamina) who rebels against authority at the fat camp she's forced to attend.

"Inside me, there's an even fatter person just trying to get out," Will tells others at the camp -- one of the few smart, tart lines in the show, which otherwise leans toward the pallid, pouting demeanor of its flabby leading lady.

In the premiere, Will balks at every rule and regulation and shuts out what wisdom the camp counselors attempt to impart. "I'm down with my fat," she announces. "Everyone wants us to hate our bodies. I refuse to."

It begins to seem as though the show will take a refreshingly contrarian stand against all the for-your-own-good advice people are always forcing down fat folks' throats (and after telling them to keep their mouths shut, too). But Will is set up as a frumpy grump who's due for moral and social realignment; all indications are that in succeeding weeks, she will see the error of her ways and, while maintaining a token independence, cave in to the rah-rah mentality so dear to reformers everywhere.

Your humble critic confesses that he has been wrestling with "weight issues" since leaving college lo these, uh, several years ago, so it's hard to be receptive to the moralistic scolding and patronizing encouragement offered endlessly by the allegedly well-meaning. Yet for all that a fat or thin person might find objectionable about the show, the individual and collective portrayals have a nice veracity to them, and there's a freshness of approach even to age-old conundrums.

In addition, some of the rituals of fat farming are fairly funny: the collection of all food, including chewing gum, on opening day (counselor to camper: "Is that toothpick flavored, girl?"), the torture that is exercise for those who quite reasonably abhor it, and Will's attempts to corrupt the system (among them, selling candies, cakes and cookies that she smuggles into camp).

With a greater proportion of comedy to drama, this could have been the "Hogan's Heroes" of chubbies and tubbies; we can be grateful it comes down instead on the side of drama. The series has a more colorful pedigree than most; it is based on a book by Sasha Paley and was developed for television by veteran TV dramatist Winnie Holzman ("My So-Called Life") and her daughter, Savannah Dooley.

It will also be a cute twist if, as one suspects, the scripted series gets a small infusion of reality-TV docudrama by having Blonsky the actor lose weight along with the character she plays as the weeks go by.

Gina Torres gives an admirable dignity to the character of Dr. Rand, who runs the fat camp and may have a corpulent skeleton in the closet herself. Other roles are cast smartly and include a cameo by the great character actor Paul Dooley (Dad in "Breaking Away") as the camp cook. If you can tolerate one more word on the beaten-senseless subject of weight loss, then, and you don't mind hearing generic cliches yet again, you could conceivably become a "Huge" fan before the summer is over.


(one hour) premieres Monday night at 9 on ABC Family.

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