Is ABC Family the best network on basic cable? No, no, it isn't. For consistency of vision and quality of programming, it lags behind frisky, risky, darkly handsome FX. But that is about the extent of its competition. This column has ventured before that there is notable substance to the channel's glossy melodramas, and the column was totally sober at the time. Pretty Little Liars, Make It or Break It, Greek: These are not your father's teen soaps. More to the point, these are not yours. Their soapiness is not just frothy but purifying—morally sensible though not preachy or, like, uplifting. The characters are drawn roundly enough to streamroll the characters of our beloved Saved by the Bell, never mind the camping little brats of the CW.
The network's latest success is Huge (Mondays at 9 p.m. ET), based on a novel by Sarah Paley and now wrapping up its first season of portraying teen angst as expressed at a weight-loss summer camp. Funny even when charting depression, the show presents an ensemble cast but offers a girl named Willamina—"I prefer Will"—as its central character. Nikki Blonksy—twisting Tracy Turnblad of Hairspray—plays the part with a charm that converts Will's compulsive sneering into charismatic orneriness and makes us keenly appreciate that her bitchiness is her only form of self-defense. Will could probably lose 20 pounds just by dropping her bad attitude.
In the first episode, she smirkily announced to her fellow campers that her summer's goal was to gain weight. She'd arrived at Camp Victory bearing a secret stash of caloric goodies and proceeded both to deal and to use. Later, she buried the hoard among some trees at the edge of camp and resisted its temptations, and things were looking up, or at least not spiraling downward. The cliffhanger of most recent episode—"Parents' Week Part 1"—saw distressed Will and a distraught accomplice sneaking out after curfew in search of a relapse. Tune in tonight to see whether they lose the straight way in the dark woods.
Huge is the spiritual descendant of the MTV documentary Fat Camp and its follow-up, Return to Fat Camp, which followed overweight teenagers up to the Poconos with no packs of franks or Frito-Lays. The original does not seem to be on DVD despite being a cult classic, primarily due to the flamboyant presence of a character named Dianne, whose dramatic whining the audience is invited to howl at on its way to extending our affection and our sympathy. The unavailability of Fat Camp is almost enough to make one wonder whether the problem is that Ronnie Van Zant and his co-writers never authorized the show's use of "Sweet Home Alabama," to which Dianne bangs her head in a exuberant moment of release and redemption. By contrast, you can watch the entirety of the sequel here, without commercial interruption. MTV is especially proud of the documentary as one of the humane projects it presents so that it can ponder J-Woww's left hook with a light conscience.
The Fat Camp docs provide us with a number of questions for discussion. Not least among these: How many fat jokes are we allowed in discussing Fat Camp? For instance, when the sequel introduces us to obese Justin—who, unlike the other featured campers, doesn't even know his weight—he says, "If I don't go down the right path, the consequences are immense." "As is he," is one natural response. Too cruel? Too easy? Is the word largely to be strictly avoided? But earnestly, in order to describe any of these programs in detail, one needs to use verbs such as waddle, wobble, jiggle, and galumph, thus denying these people the respect they ache to achieve for themselves.
Both Return to Fat Camp and Huge are so, ah, meaty because they put the issue of poundage in the background for long stretches. The matter of fat is a door onto addressing the full spectrum of adolescent self-esteem issues—bullying, parental strife, frustrated romance, looking cool. In fact, each is especially compelling when sketching the psyche of a kid who isn't especially heavy. On Return to Fat Camp, this is Samantha, who has a fine figure and whose summer away from home seems most valuable as an opportunity to escape her awful mother. In an early segment, when Sam shows off a pair of size-4 jeans she bought, her mother address the camera to deliver mirthful undermining: "She can't wear them, but she enjoyed buying them." On Huge, it is Amber (played by David Hasselhoff's daughter Hayley), who is exceedingly pretty and who earned scoffs from her peers for being merely zaftig. Amber was last seen dashing away from her cabin with Will, fiending for the false comfort of empty calories after her mother tempted her with chocolate-butterscotch cookies. My bet is that, whatever else the girls find in the woods, they will discover a meaningful lesson out there, one that will walk the line between sentiment and mush with agility, the series being light on its feet.
Slate V: Dana Stevens and June Thomas endorse Huge