In the run-up to the Gilmore Girls reunion miniseries, I rewatched a lot of the original episodes. Among the things I was struck by — especially since I was watching them at the same time as the early installments of NBC’s This Is Us — was how Gilmore virtually never mentioned Sookie’s weight, or her feelings about it. Sookie wasn’t as skinny as Lorelai, but she was never presented as the sad fat friend of the beautiful and slender main character. There were never storylines where she fretted about not being able to find love or happiness unless she dropped a bunch of dress sizes, and when she began a relationship with her eventual husband Jackson (a comparatively svelte person himself), neither she nor anyone else on the show wondered what he could see in her. I doubt I’d even need all the fingers of one hand to count the number of times Sookie’s size was brought up in any context, because she was defined by so many other things: her relentlessly sunny disposition, her clumsiness, her perfectionism about the food she cooked, her unwavering devotion to Lorelai and Rory (and then to Jackson), etc.
Sookie was, of course, played by Melissa McCarthy, and before she went on to become one of the world’s biggest movie stars (and brilliant caricaturist of White House spokesmen), she starred in CBS’ Mike & Molly, about two people who meet at a weight loss support group, fall in love, and get married. And even with the size of the two main characters baked into the premise, Mike & Molly quickly established lots of traits about each character beyond how their diets were going.
This Is Us, meanwhile, borrowed the Mike & Molly premise to bring together one of its main characters, Kate (Chrissy Metz), with boyfriend Toby (Chris Sullivan), who also met at a weight loss support group. But where Mike & Molly was able to move beyond fat jokes after a while, This Is Us has made virtually every Kate story be about her weight on some level: Kate feels self-conscious about her weight when going to one of Kevin’s Hollywood parties! Kate gets hired for a job because the skinny boss hopes Kate will connect with her bigger daughter! Kate wants to break up with Toby because he’s an impediment to her diet! I could tell you a few things about her that seemingly have nothing to do with her size — she loved her dad, likes football (mainly because she loved her dad), was very into Madonna as a kid, and likes to sing in private — but inevitably most of those loop back around to her weight, like how she’s reluctant to sing in public because she’s self-conscious of how she looks.
The show even acknowledged this single-minded characterization early on by having Kate insist that she thinks about her weight all the time, every day, in every context. And while that may be true of some plus-sized people, it’s not true of most of the ones I’ve encountered in my travels, female or male (myself included). More to the point, it makes her a bad character from a dramatic standpoint. While This Is Us can become too mono-focused on a specific attribute of the other characters, it ultimately allows all of them multiple dimensions and personality traits so that they’re never defined entirely by their main thing. But Kate is so connected to her size that she barely has a personality. When the Thanksgiving episode — in which the other members of the family went through many different kinds of conflicts — ended with an oblivious Kate bursting into Randall’s home to announce that she had decided to get gastric bypass surgery, it played almost like an SNL parody of the show.
And now there’s this awful love triangle she finds herself in — while attending weight-loss camp, because of course that’s the only place from the show’s POV where Kate could get into a love triangle. On one side is Toby, who thinks he’s sensitive and funny and God’s gift to unhappy women like Kate, when to me and many other viewers he comes across as obnoxious and completely insensitive to Kate’s desires and boundaries, like his insistence in last night’s episode on coming to one of her exercise classes and clowning it up while she’s trying to seriously focus on getting healthier. (I like Sullivan a lot, and when the show has put Toby together with Kevin, he’s fun, but he’s a lousy boyfriend/fiance.) On the other side is a camp staffer who seems to have built his entire sex life around negging overweight women so they’ll feel relieved when he wants to have sex with them.
Do the writers — who have talked with some pride about the ground they’re breaking by making a larger woman such an important part of their show, and by telling so many stories about her struggle to lose weight and find happiness — think one or both of these guys are meant to be great romantic options? Or are they just trying to suggest that these are the best options for her unless she can drop all the extra weight? That she should be grateful for any man who shows interest in her?
Admittedly, Toby has many fans; when I tweeted about the story this morning, the reaction was pretty evenly split between people who wish Kate would kick him to the curb and those who couldn’t believe anyone doesn’t like Toby — and, in many cases, who think he’s too good for her. And while I don’t much like Toby as her boyfriend, I’m also not sure why he wants to be with her, precisely because she’s so gloomy and weight-obsessed.
But if you don’t find Toby nearly as funny or charming as he finds himself, then Kate’s romantic travails are just another sad thing about a character in whom This Is Us would seemingly lose all interest if she wasn’t heavy.
You could argue that Gilmore Girls’ reluctance to bring up Sookie’s weight was going too far to the other extreme from what This Is Us has done with Kate — that being best friends with a woman who constantly gorged herself on junk food yet remained thin as a rail would, if nothing else, prompt an occasional self-deprecating joke about their different metabolisms. But I’ll take the approach that allows a bigger character to have their humanity first, second, third, and fifteenth over one where they’re a big person, but only rarely a person, period.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org