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.
Summer camp is a different world, separate from home, and for many of the characters on Huge this is a good thing: their home lives have never been easy, and for them the camp is an escape not only in terms of avoiding the social pressure from their peers but also from their own families. For Wil, who was forced to come to the camp by her parents who she believes are ashamed of how she looks, Camp Victory is looking more and more like a safe haven, a place where she can try something new (like basketball) and not feel as if she needs to be ashamed of it. The series has thus far been a bit less than subtle in terms of tearing down her cynical facade, but you realize at a certain point that Wil reads her parents as villains, their every move interpreted as punishment even if they’re doing it in her best interest. And so when she meets parents who support their daughter in every way, and who support her Basketball game as if she were their own daughter, it’s like a whole new world: for once, adults in her life are cheering her on, using positive reinforcement to bring forth change, and Wil can’t help but feel changed by that experience.
What makes this story work is how it’s reflected in the rest of the characters’ and their own experiences with their family. You have the basketball jock only able to write to his dead mother about his struggle to find his identity outside of sports, you have the mean girl unwilling to acknowledge that her brother (also at the camp) is actually her brother, and you have the camp director unable to tell her mother the truth about taking in her estranged father as the camp’s new cook. The letter-writing (or package receiving) is mirrored, though, in how the characters stumble their way through crushes in the episode: Chloe struggles to read the jock’s signals about whether she should hold his hands, while Ian stares at Amber from afar instead of actually trying to talk to her. The same reasons why Wil and Dorothy don’t send their true feelings to their parents explain why these characters don’t act on their feelings, but in some ways the act of writing is a personal one, their letters home a way of isolating certain emotions through direct address which would expand one’s journal entries (which the pilot established as a key to their experience at the camp).
It’s a point nicely captured through Hayley Hasselhoff’s Amber, who learns both the pleasure and the pain of two-way communication. On the one hand, she finally speaks to her counselor crush, the two sharing a few definite “moments” which hint towards legitimate chemistry (and thus inevitable heartbreak). However, on the other hand, she calls home and discovers that the mother she thinks of like a sister is not someone who she can handle talking to while trying to do something for herself. It isn’t that her Mother is hurtful, but rather that her mother is dependent on her for support, and in some ways Amber is unable to think about herself (and her own health) while dealing with her mother, who may well be suffering from a disability or an illness. She wants to stay connected to her family with lengthy letters, but talking to them directly brings back that anxiety, and however homesickness she might have been experienced is replaced by a desire to be alone and to focus on her own problems.
It’s why the helicopter parents at the center of the episode’s narrative are so important: they haven’t let their daughter “sink or swim” at any point in her life, and while that has helped her in many ways it had also led to intense anxiety when separated from them. She’s perfectly social with the other kids, dispensing advice, chatting, and even flirting without any hesitation; however, either because her parents left or because she simply couldn’t take the stress that she was bottling up inside (and not communicating in any fashion), she breaks down and the series gets the bunk bed equivalent to the Defence Against the Dark Arts position at Hogwarts. What makes the somewhat broad parental figures work is that they represent both sides of the argument which “Letters Home” captures: their support of Wil emphasizes the role that parents can play in helping teenagers take control of their lives, while their inability to leave their daughter shows the ways in which parents can keep their children from really embracing their full potential even when they mean well. The series doesn’t have a stance on parenting, just as it doesn’t have a stance on body image: it simply captures the different roles they play in people’s lives, without judgment and (more importantly) without a definitive moral conclusion which ties everything up in a tidy bow.
It’s that lack of a saccharine final voiceover that makes the show work for me: it has plenty of cliched elements that keep it from being truly spectacular (on the level of something like Friday Night Lights), but it’s clearly interested in being more than teen soap opera. There’s a respect being shown in the series that I truly appreciate, and so long as it never feels as if that respect turns to an after school special I think that the show is in a fine place. In some ways it’s doing what Glee was afraid of doing, presenting a real glimpse into teenage life without undercutting it with jokes or melodramatizing it in any way. It’s a serious series about a serious subject which never feels bogged down by its seriousness, a quality which is quite rare – it’s possible that it could fall off over time, and that ABC Family (despite the series’ success) may want a show which better reflects the satire many presume the show’s title represents, but I truly hope that a subtle, thematically-driven series about childhood obesity is able to make a go of it, as I find Huge to be quite an engaging piece of television.
- The short runner about Ian presuming that Wil is a lesbian isn’t unpacked as effectively as I might have liked, and the episode suffered a bit in that Danielle and Ian’s chemistry immediately tipped us off that Danielle would be leaving (since the show is invested in that love triangle of sorts and has no intention of abandoning it (as the orientational confusion indicates).
- There are moments where I start to question at what point the show will fall into satire: when the jock left the game to write his letter, and ended it by addressing it to his mother, I thought for a moment that they were revealing that he had lied about his mother’s death in order to earn sympathy and eventually sexual favour. I’m 90% certain that he meant it as a letter he couldn’t write to his father (who probably pushed him into sports to some degree), but the show sits enough on that edge of cruelty that I never known when it will show a different face.
- My So-Called Life is on a short list of 90s shows that I should really watch, and this show is eventually going to give me a good reason to do so.
- This is going to be embarrassing in that it demonstrates the fact that I’ve seen and in some way internalized the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but Amber’s relationship with the counselor very much reminds me of Blake Lively’s experience at soccer camp, albeit with a bit more nuance considering it’s going to be stretched out over a season.