Because TV shows are largely populated with thin, attractive white people, there’s a tendency for anyone who’s an outlier to be defined entirely by what makes them different. They become less characters than representatives, standing in for all the unseen people who share their race, appearance, size, or what have you. It’s usually only when you put several similar outlier characters together that the writers start to view them as something other than a token symbol. When an episode of “Homicide,” for instance, famously put three black characters alone in a room together, the scene became not about race, but about who these cops were and what they wanted, and the sad thing was that such a thing was so unusual that it was worthy of notice.
The outlier problem is especially stark on teen dramas, because high school is all about spotlighting why some people are different from the crowd. In particular, any character who’s not a twig – say, Mercedes on “Glee” – gets placed largely in stories about how it feels to not be part of the skinny crowd.
That’s why I’m intrigued by “Huge,” ABC Family’s new drama series set at a camp for obese teens, which premieres tonight at 9. Aside from the counselors (headed by the tall, willowy Gina Torres), everyone is on the heavy side. The opening scene puts all the kids in bathing suits so they can take an unguarded “Before” picture that will hopefully inspire a much thinner “After” picture at summer’s end, and the camera frame is filled with the kinds of bodies we’re not used to seeing on television. (Or, at least, on TV dramas, since the success of “The Biggest Loser” obviously makes a show like this possible, in the same way that “Lost” was born as an attempt to do a scripted “Survivor.”)
As camp veteran Becca (Raven Goodwin) tells newcomer Will (Nikki Blonsky from the movie version of “Hairspray”), “You see, everyone’s overweight, so the playing field is… more like there is one.”
And because everyone’s out on that playing field, we learn quickly in that opening scene that while none of these kids are happy with how they look in a bathing suit, they’re individuals who can’t simply be dismissed as “the big one.” Becca is shy and introverted. Will is angry that her parents sent her to this place and vows to gain weight as an act of rebellion. (“I feel like inside me, there’s an even fatter person waiting to get out!” she boasts.) Amber (played by David Hasselhoff’s daughter Hayley, a former plus-sized model) isn’t used to all the attention she receives as the thinnest, prettiest girl at fat camp.
It’s a refreshing change from the usual tokenism, and the mother-daughter creative team of Winnie Holzman and Savannah Dooley try to maintain a balance between the subject matter – these kids are, after all, here for the same reason – and making sure everyone gets to be an individual.
In the mid-’90s, Holzman created “My So-Called Life,” still held up as one of the great teen dramas of all time, and an obvious touchstone for nearly every similar WB, CW, Fox and ABC Family show created since. She and Dooley are painting with a broader brush here than she did when working with Claire Danes and company – where “MSCL” felt written both for actual teens and those who strongly remembered their teenage years, “Huge” is targeted squarely at ABC Family’s younger audience – but there are still moments of simple, impressive honesty, like an unexpected meeting between Will and the camp director in a non-camp setting, or a handsome male counselor trying to make Amber feel better after a public humiliation.
“Huge” isn’t a show for me, but it’s effective in what it’s trying to do, and I’m glad it exists.
Alan Sepinwall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org