Is Praiseworthy ‘Huge’ The Most Daring Show on Television?

'Huge' (ABC Family)

'Huge' (ABC Family)

ABC Family’s new series ‘Huge‘ premiered Monday night. The show about teens at weight loss camp has gotten a lot of hype for daring to have a cast that is almost entirely plus sized, and focusing on the hot-button issue of childhood obesity.  My expectations were sky high because it is created by Winnie Holzman, who previously created one of the most iconic, albeit short-lived, teen television series ever, 1994’s ‘My So Called Life,’ before going on to write the musical ‘Wicked.’  Nobody does a better job of writing about about physical appearance and self-esteem.  ‘Wicked’ is, among other things, the best story about a teenage girl who gets picked on because of her looks ever.  After watching both the pilot and the superior second episode, I am delighted to report that the show is a refreshing blast back to the 1990s, when television teenagers were allowed to be rebellious and thoughtful, instead of just obsessed with being popular. The most daring thing about the show isn’t the size of its actors, it’s its attitude.

The show’s central character, Will (Nikki Blonsky) reminded me of the ultimate 1990s teen icon — not Angela Chase — Daria Morgenderfer, posterchild for nerdy non-conformists.  Her parents have forced her to attend the creepily named Camp Victory in the hopes that she will lose weight.  Instead, Will dares to be happy with her body and decides to embark on a plan to gain weight.  She mocks the entire weight loss culture, accurately pointing out that the camp’s goal is not to make them healthier, it is to make them look more socially acceptable. She cuts out photos of rubenesque women as “fatspiration,” and describes herself as an angry feminist.  She is a teenager whose thoughts extend beyond the social pecking order. As Blonsky describes Will, “She looks completely different from everybody else and she does not care.  She would rather go big than go home. She would rather make a spectacle of herself than tell you the truth.”

It is so much fun to watch a character who, despite plenty of insecurities, has the confidence to be defiantly true to herself.  She does not care if she fits in to any of the camp’s cliques.  The message of questioning the status quo  is just as important to send to impressionable young viewers as the idea that people of all sizes deserve respect.

Missed The First Episode? Watch It Here:

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Like ‘My So Called Life’, the teenagers of ‘Huge’ are as physically awkward as real teenagers, a sharp contrast to the aspirational beauties of ‘Gossip Girl‘ and ‘Pretty Little Liars‘ — who like ‘Huge’ are based on a series of young adult novels published by teen book factory Alloy.  Will wears a retainer.  Chloe (Ashley Holliday) has headgear.  Even pretty blonde Amber (Hayley Hasselhoff) has pimples.

Holzman also kicks it old school ‘Daria‘ style by making all of the characters likable and possessing surprising depth, despite the show’s light tone.  Amber seems stuck up to Will, but she is actually an insecure girl who knows that her days as the pretty, popular girl will end the moment she returns to the real world.  Will shows some chinks in her armor when she develops a crush on Ian (Ari Stidham) after they bond over their mutual, if unlikely, love of seminal 1990s band The Pixies, but he makes it clear he only has eyes for Amber. (This show really truly is trying to bring back the grunge era.) It’s an achingly real moment when the cool, alternative guy turns out to be as conventional as the rest of them.  Ian turns out to be realistically fickle in the second episode when another girl proclaims that he is cute — undoubtedly a first for him — and he is drawn to her.

One of the most subversive things about the show is the way it subtly challenges viewer expectations of what plus size people look like.  On most shows, anyone bigger than a size four looks enormous in comparison to everyone else on screen.  Here, as the majority of the cast, and dressed in flattering clothes, the teens look normal and attractive.  The camp’s staff, all played by thin actors almost look too small, particularly a sinewy athletic coach Shaye (Tiz Texada), who is clearly inspired by Jillian  from ‘The Biggest Loser.’

The thin characters are portrayed as every bit as screwed up as the larger ones. Dr. Rand is a former camper who, in the words of Gina Torres, “On the outside she may appear to be like some of the other characters I’ve played that people are familiar with: strong, determined and righteous.  But on the inside she’s an absolute mess.  She is a knot of insecurities and she’s quite vulnerable at times and not sure for herself where she should go and what she should do.”

For The Sake Of Comparison – And Nostalgia – Watch The Pilot Episode Of ‘My So-Called Life’:

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Hunky assistant fitness coach George seems like Mr. Perfect to the teens, but as his portrayer Zander Eckhouse explains,  “George is perpetually afraid he’s going to lose his job.  He’s a nice foil to Shaye who is always yelling at the campers to make them work harder. George deep down identifies with these kids and wants them to create a support network that makes them feel comfortable in their own skin.”

The show’s portrayal of Camp Victory is overall positive.  But it does not shy away from showing the degrading aspects of its weight loss system.  The packages the kids receive from home are opened and searched for contraband, as if they were prisoners.  They are subjected to weigh ins on a regular basis.  Campers admit they are back for a second summer because they regained the weight that they lost.   It leaves it up to viewers to decide whether putting teenagers in a controlled environment that encourages them to focus only on their weight is the best way for them to make a change in their lives.

The show’s pilot was uneven, as it labors to set up a lot of characters and veers between subversive and heartwarming.  It was in the second episode, which uses the device of letters home to delve into the family lives of the teens and the camp’s director, Dr. Rand (Gina Torres) that ‘Huge’ came into its own.  A plot about a new camper with overprotective parents plays out in an entirely unexpected way. There is the sort of character revealing throw away moment that is taught in film schools.  By the end of the episode I was not just smiling, I was thinking.

Based on the reactions of other viewers, I was not alone. The Frisky’s Jessica Wakefield wrote, “In an ideal fairytale world, the only show with all plus-size actors wouldn’t have to be set at a weight-loss camp…  I think we should welcome this first attempt at, for lack of a better word, integration. Yes, it’s kind of annoying that it has to be set at a weight-loss camp, but I hope in time we’ll look back at ‘Huge’ not as annoying, but groundbreaking.” The website About Face, which focuses on the portrayal of women’s body images in the media, wrote, “This isn’t an offensive exploration of weight (“Starved,” anyone?) or a corny PSA promoting sensitivity toward heavy teens. It’s just a decent show that handles a potentially touchy subject with grace and humor.”  Welcome back to television, Winnie Holzman. This time I hope I will get to spend more than 19 episodes with your characters.

What did you think of the first episode?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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