Interview: Talking Huge with Savannah Dooley
September 7th, 2010
If you’re a regular visitor, you know that I spent much of my summer obsessed with ABC Family’s Huge, a show which really surprised me in its premiere and continued to build throughout the summer. After starting as an interesting glimpse into the experience at a summer camp designed to help teenagers lose weight, over time it became a nuanced take on adolescent self-discovery. Without directly subverting summer camp cliches, the mother-daughter development team of Savannah Dooley and Winnie Holzman elevated their simple structure into the summer’s finest drama series.
[For all of my reviews of Huge's first season, click here.]
However, since it was more or less just Todd VanDerWerff and I writing about the show, there wasn’t a whole lot of analysis being done, so I felt a certain obligation to do what I could to dig deeper into the series’ subtexts – as a result, after reaching out to the production, I got in contact with Savannah Dooley, who was kind enough to answer some questions via Email about how the series developed, the ways in which the characters evolved over the course of the season, what awaits the show should ABC Family decide to pick up the back half of Season One, and the latest news on the chances of that pickup in the months ahead, all of which can be found after the break.
“Parents Weekend – Part Two”
August 30th, 2010
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Huge has been my show of the summer: the show embodies the potential for programming aimed at teenagers which doesn’t speak down to its audience, mining the complexities of adolescence instead of exaggerating its most dramatic moments. Staying true to its observational camera angles (reminiscent of Friday Night Lights, soon to be part of the ABC Family…family), the show has allowed characters to develop independent of earth-shattering revelations, just as interested in silence as in outbursts or monologues.
I’ve seen some criticism of the show for being too close to various cliches, a criticism which I don’t think is entirely unfair: there is no question that Huge has hewed fairly close to the traditional expectations of summer camp fiction, and there have been moments (see: “Spirit Quest”) which lost the series’ focus on investigating the life-changing moments, both big and small, which have nothing (and everything) to do with the central mission of Camp Victory. However, when the show was at its best, this focus transcended the tropes it has played with, and the show is certainly flirting with my Top 10 for the year thus far.
The second part of “Parents Weekend,” scripted by series co-creator Savannah Dooley, does nothing to change my love for the show, as the episode perfectly sums up the ways in which the nuances and subtleties of these stories defies the predictability of its log lines; it’s a strong end to a damn strong half a season, and all we can hope now is that ABC Family is as interested to see the other half as we are.
“Parents Weekend – Part One”
August 23rd, 2010
In “Letters Home,” which was, like “Parents Weekend – Part One,” scripted by Gayle Abrams, we ‘met’ the parents.
Sure, we only met each camper’s parents through letters they wrote to them, but we got a sense of how each of them related with their parents. Trent, instead of writing to his father, writes to his deceased mother, while Will writes a scathing letter to her parents which she promptly rips up when she realizes it’s too honest for her standards. We didn’t actually meet their parents, but we saw enough to understand that family relationships play an enormous role in the larger psychological issues at play in the series.
Over the weekend, I watched the pilot to Winnie Holzman’s My So-Called Life, which is available on Hulu and which was pretty fantastic. That series was similarly interested in the relationship between teenagers and their parents, but what sets Huge apart for me is how many diverse scenarios its camp setting allows it to present. Whereas more dramas would be content to follow a few pairings, the sheer depth of this cast means that there are a good half dozen parental scenarios which unfold in the span of the episode, each connecting to the same basic themes while presenting an entirely different set of circumstances.
It doesn’t exactly have as much of a cliffhanger as it thinks it has, and treads water in a few too many areas, but there’s some really great subtlety here which continues the series’ trend towards greatness.
August 9th, 2010
After last week’s journey into slightly hokey territory, Huge returns to its roots with an episode that brings weight back to the forefront with the all-important weigh-in.
However, there’s a reason that it isn’t called “Weigh-in”: while “Poker Face” does return to each camper’s anxiety over their weight, it is more interested in how they respond than about how much weight they lost. Even with something this monumental, the show is still more about those small moments where campers confront the challenges which face them every day rather than those big moments where they stand on a scale.
August 2nd, 2010
Thus far, Huge has largely (oy, that was unintentional) stuck to a pretty simple formula: take a basic summer camp activity, and then explore how it would impact ongoing character relationships and identity struggles amongst Camp Victory’s overweight campers. In fact, part of what has made the series so successful is that it resists highly melodramatic scenarios, choosing instead to highlight how normal camp life is integrated into a larger narrative of life itself.
“Spirit Quest” is ostensibly a continuation of this trend, although I think it’s a more problematic example than the past couple of episodes. There is something about spirit quests which invites skepticism, which needs to be handled carefully in order to preserve each character’s individual perspective; however, there is also the temptation to have the campers to actually experience something approaching a spirit vision, which threatens to take the series into hokey territory that it would be better off resisting.
In the end, there are many parts of “Spirit Quest” which end up sitting comfortable in the middle ground, but there are a few moments where they push themselves to the edges of the story and do a slight disservice to a few of their characters.
July 26th, 2010
In Huge’s pilot, Becca explains to Will that everyone at Camp Victory is on an level playing field, which was very quickly proven to be a lie as cliques emerged and conflicts arose. However, over time, I think the show has successfully shown how there is a certain equality amongst the campers, as Trent and Ian bond over music or as Will and Amber successfully travel in different circles without forming some sort of Mean Girls-esque feud. While the playing field may not be level, it is also constantly changing, shifting with each week’s event: Becca can be elevated by her role in the LARPing, or where Ian shines on talent night. With everyone facing similar circumstances in one part of their life, their differences become just like any other summer camp, which the series has treated with a very careful hand which is commendable.
However, “Movie Night” addresses head on the fact that there nonetheless exists certain imbalances, both within the series’ narrative (with George and Amber’s “dangerous” romance) and within the series’ structure (in Dorothy’s story arc intersecting with her campers). While one can chalk up the success or failure of some romances to teenage insecurities and misunderstandings, others have barriers which are more substantial, both in terms of how the show avoids falling into cliches and how the writers strike a balance between keeping Dorothy central without turning her life into its own bit of teenage romance.
And if you’re thinking that the perfect way to strike this balance is to introduce a Twilight parody, then you’re embracing how far Huge is willing to push the limits of its own success, here to its benefit.
July 19th, 2010
Summer camp is a very small world, and a television show set at a summer camp is even smaller. If someone tells a lie, chances are that lie will come to haunt them, and if someone is keeping a secret there’s a good chance that it will bubble under the surface until emerging. Huge is a show about vulnerability, about how these campers struggle to open themselves up to the potential for change while not opening themselves up to the point where they feel like their lives are on display, and secrets and lies are one of the ways in which they shield themselves from ridicule, reprimand, or simple exposure.
“Talent Night” doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to how talent shows force their participants to face their fears, but Winnie Holzman very successfully owns this particular trope, delivering two empowering moments which are in some ways polar opposites but share one important trait: neither moment is played as universal experience. For every moment of collective reflection there is one subsection of the camp which has a different interpretation, or who is busy dealing with a different crisis at the time, and “Talent Night” does a very good job of bringing those stories together without forcing them to the same conclusions.
“Live Action Role Play”
July 12th, 2010
“I was myself…sort of.”
It says a lot about the current trajectory of Huge that “Live Action Role Play” is both the most “ABC Family-esque” episode of the series thus far as well as the episode which I think shows the most signs of future growth. After last week’s fairly heavy glimpse into those letters we can’t write, and those anxieties which overcome us without some form of an outlet to express them, this week’s focus on LARPing has considerably less subtlety, playing the exact notes regarding identity and performance which speak to the heart of the show’s central message that you’d expect from such a story.
However, what surprised me about the episode was how this storyline stretched our current definitions of these characters, continuing to develop and complicate existing character relationships while creating some new ones which successfully expand the series’ perspective. Where the show seems to resist notions of what I’d consider to be teen drama formula is how successfully characters move from the periphery to the margins, and how a character introduced in one context can quite successfully float into another – this isn’t to say that the show is radically reinventing itself each week, but rather that it seems comfortable with documenting the flow of life at Camp Victory rather than the moments of dramatic or comic interest within that environment.
This doesn’t mean the show is successful across the board at this stage, but it means that it collects more than enough goodwill over the course of an episode for its occasional cliches to feel earned, and often puts those cliches to good use.
July 5th, 2010
Huge is definitively a dramatic series, a quality which sets it apart from the rest of ABC Family’s lineup in a pretty substantial fashion. While Greek is an hour-long comedy with dramatic elements, and shows like Secret Life of the American Teenager, Make it or Break It, and Pretty Little Liars fall pretty comfortably into the teen soap opera category, Huge is a series about the “real” life of a subsection of American teenagers. While the title implies a satirical glimpse into the lives of those who struggle with their weight, the show itself is a deconstruction of words like “Huge,” providing a multi-generational portrait of the challenges facing those labeled “obese” or “overweight” in our society. It takes ownership of the word, just as Wil (our central protagonist) takes ownership of her fat, and the result is a really compelling television series.
I wrote a piece for Jive TV discussing my basic response to the series, but since I quite enjoyed “Letters Home” (the second episode of the series), and because I know that there are some who find the series completely uninteresting, I thought I’d expand on those thoughts a bit. What “Letters Home” does so well is how it manages to create character development out of one-way communication, and how that theme extends from the basic letter writing to the personal interactions involved in the episode. While it continues to peddle in cliches, it treats those cliches with a great deal of respect, and looks at them from enough different angles that the show never feels like it is about the cliche but rather about the reality of those who are swept up in those stories.
In the process, it’s becoming the Friday Night Lights of summer camp cliches, which isn’t a bad spot to be in.