I was very wrong about ABC Family’s “Huge” (Monday nights at 9 EST). I assumed wrongly that a show about teenager set at a fat camp — especially one released in the wake of Paul Blart — would be a series of fat jokes, fat pratfalls, and a lot of other easy but spectacularly unfunny jokes. Or worse: It’d be a series of treacly After-school specials about eating disorders. But it’s neither of those things. It’s a sophisticated teen drama with nuance of character. It’s surprisingly thoughtful and aims to explore issues of obesity and self-image in a way that’s not self-contained — there are no magical makeovers, and I’d be surprised if any of the characters lost a significant amount of weight throughout the course of the season. Indeed, it’s as much about the challenges of living with the extra weight as it is about getting rid of it.
Nikki Blonsky (Hairspray) is Will, the lead character in the ensemble. Her parents shuffled her off to fat camp because they were ashamed of her weight. Blonsky’s character, so far, is the most dynamic: She doesn’t want to lose weight because she perceives it as a concession to her parents. She’s proud and defiant and empowered and cynical. But she’s also afraid of earnestly attempting anything because she doesn’t want to fail. Admitting that she actually wants to lose weight would put her in the strange position of conceding that she doesn’t like who she is, which isn’t true, but it’s also not false, either. And in a wasteland where obesity is exploited for gags and treated like one-dimensional characters, Blonsky’s Will is a rarity: an overweight character with thoughts and feelings and even a sense of humor that doesn’t revolve around making cracks at her own expense. It’s interesting, through the first two episodes, to watch her pride duke it out with both her insecurities and her fear of failure.
The best friend role here is played by Raven Goodwin’s Becca; it took me an episode and a half before I could place her as the little girl in The Station Agent. Becca is in her second stint at fat camp, having gained all the weight back from her first attempt, and she helps guide Will through the process initially, though in the second episode, she’s sort of pushed into the background to make way for Hayley Hasselhoff’s Amber (and yes, she’s the daughter of David; she’s also a pretty good actress). Amber is overweight but pretty, and while initially that makes her the outcast, the writers are careful not to make her a villain. She’s also dealing with her own set of insecurities, namely that she’s attractive but doesn’t realize it because all she can see about herself is the flab, which presents an interesting wrinkle in the thin camp counselor’s attempts to express his romantic interest in her. Amber also clearly has a co-dependent relationship with her mom from which she’s struggling to break free.
Meanwhile, Gina Torres (yes, “Firefly’s” Zoë Washburne) is the head camp counselor; a strong disciplinarian whose backstory hasn’t fully been revealed yet. She has an strained relationship with her father, who she’s asked to come to the camp and cook.
“Huge” is clearly going for the same sort of vibe as “Friday Night Lights,” with the Explosions in the Sky knock-off music, and while it certainly doesn’t attain nearly those heights, it’s a welcome show if only for its attempts to address a widespread issue that our popular culture largely ignores. Something like 62 percent of Americans are overweight, and half of those are obese, and yet few in movies or on television have attempted to address body-image insecurities in a real and earnest way. “Huge” is not completely successful in its own attempts (and the pace drags a little), and it’s likely not a show I’ll continue watching (it is, after all, geared toward teens), but it’s heartfelt and an honest show — the overweight characters are played by actors who are actually overweight (and not overweight by Hollywood standards). More than that, it gets a lot right; it’s an emotionally attuned drama that explores the many complexities overweight teenagers must navigate with their parents, with their romantic interests, and most of all, with themselves. Better still: There’s not a two-by-four joke in sight.