I’m on vacation next week (but Tuned In will still be kicking, thanks to the cyborg duo of Robo-James and Steven James Snyder; more on that later). While I’m out, here are a couple debuts I won’t have time to write up at greater length, but are worth some attention: ABC Family’s Huge and FX’s Louie.
ABC Family, which already has considerable heat lately with Pretty Little Liars and the returning The Secret Life of the American teenager (of Bristol Palin fame) has one of the summer’s more audacious debuts on Monday with Huge, a teen drama set at, yes, a fat camp. Or a “weight-loss camp.” Or a “health and self-esteem camp.” The tricky language around the issue of childhood obesity, and the push-pull tension of a growing health issue vs. body-image issues (especially among girls) makes this an especially daring and timely topic. And the pilot episode, from mother-daughter writing duo Winnie Holzman and Savannah Dooley, shows nuance, guts and a lot of promise.
The series, based on a book by Sasha Paley, is an ensemble centered on Willamina (Nikki Blonksy), a newcomer to weight-loss-oriented Camp Victory. The sarcastic, confident Willamina doesn’t want to be at camp, doesn’t believe her problem is weight or health so much as society’s unrealistic body-image expectations and soon butts heads with the camp’s director, Dr. Rand (Firefly’s Gina Torres).
As we meet more of the fellow campers—with issues related to their weight as well as universal teen social conflicts—Huge lets their opposing views clash and become nicely complicated.The pilot doesn’t neatly take one side or the other—whether the camp is addressing a public-health crisis that has attracted the likes of Michelle Obama, or whether it’s reinforcing harmful social biases about the body that can lead to eating disorders and worse—and it holds open the possibility that both views could be true at the same time. At the same time it complicates our view of the protagonist: how much of Willamina’s attitude is deeply felt principle, and how much is a defense mechanism? The clever, engaging script and Blonsky’s performance—plus the refreshing idea of a teen drama not entirely populated by assembly-line pinups—promise a summer diversion with a little more than usual dramatic meat on its bones.
Tuesday, meanwhile, brings FX’s Louie, another comedy showcase for Louis C.K. I wasn’t a fan of the last attempt to translate his standup to TV, HBO’s Lucky Louie, which had the right idea—a Roseanne-like working-class sitcom—but executed it awkwardly. Bu I am a big fan of Louis C.K. himself, who had an excellent guest turn in Parks and Recreation last season.
Louie is an even more direct adaptation of his comedy and his life. Each episode consists of two vignettes introduced by a comic monologue on stage, which sets the theme for the set piece that follows. In those stories, Louis C.K. plays, well, Louis C.K.—a successful Manhattan comic and single dad. The excellent pilot episode hits on both the “single” and “dad” parts, with a hilarious incident involving his shepherding a school field trip that goes wrong, and an awkward date that, um, also goes wrong, yet in an entirely different way.
Unlike Lucky Louie, FX’s Louie is a single-camera comedy, shot not mostly on a sitcom stage but at locations around the city. But the important difference that makes this comedy work so well is how it translates Louis C.K.’s comic persona into a series character. The usual thing for sitcoms to do with a middle-aged, pudgy comic is to make him into a likeable, doofy schlub—and there’s some of that here, as in a guest spot for Ricky Gervais, who plays a doctor and old friend who mocks Louie mercilessly at a physical.
But there’s also a kind of dignity to Louis C.K.’s schlubbiness. He’s sometimes overwhelmed as a dad, yet he’s also dedicated and involved and—something of a rarity on TV—actually good at it, down to the mundane jobs of making dinner and going to school meetings. In the pilot, his date asks him about his daughters and he finds himself unwillingly tearing up, which makes for a hiliariously awkward moment but is also kind of sweet
There’s a dark, sardonic edge to him standup (in a riff about marriage, he notes that the “best-case scenario” is that you meet your soulmate, you complete each other—and then they die). This manifests in his character not as anger but a kind of weary, Zen aggrievedness; his go-to affect is the eye-roll and exhalation, as if to say, Yeah, sure, why not, toss one more straw on the camel’s back.
Some of the later episodes (I’ve seen four) are uneven, and the stories sometimes have the feel of standup riffs literally adapted for the screen. But even those can be funny and well-observed, as when Louie attends a grade-school PTA meeting surrounded by overanxious, overeducated Manhattan helicopter parents worried about there not being enough play in the curriculum. Isn’t the issue, Louie blurts out, that it’s just school? “And school just sucks, right?” he asks, to uncomfortable silence.
Louie doesn’t come close to sucking. Here’s to a season of more awkward moments.