Huge debuts tonight on ABC Family at 9 p.m. Eastern.
I was always going to give Huge a shot, simply because it comes from Winnie Holzman, the creator of one of the great teen dramas, My So-Called Life, which was one of those seminal shows that got me interested in this medium. I expected it to be pretty good, since it marked Holzman's return to television after a decade seemingly spent writing the book for the musical Wicked, but I honestly didn't expect it to be as good as it was. ABC Family sent out two episodes for review, and as soon as I was done with the pilot, I wanted to see the other episode. Huge, tucked on an out-of-the-way cable channel in a number of genres that seem to get little respect, is legitimately one of the best shows of the summer.
Holzman co-developed the show with daughter Savannah Dooley (Holzman's husband and Dooley's father, character actor Paul Dooley, turns up in a small but pivotal part) from a book by Sasha Paley. The project is, by necessity, a bit less closely-observed than My So-Called Life, and it has a tendency toward speechifying at certain points. That's not necessarily a bad thing on a show that's aimed squarely at the ABC Family audience, though I suspect it will keep some from truly embracing the series. There's definitely a tendency to write the show off as a teen drama set at a fat camp, and a few reviews already have, but there's more to the situations and characters here, and Holzman and Dooley have made the people their show is centered on distinctive, interesting, and prickly. The best thing I can say about Huge is that the central character is simultaneously an enormously sympathetic protagonist and kind of a cruel bitch.
The thing that made My So-Called Life so distinctive (and something that hasn't terribly been replicated since) was its complete lack of gimmicks. The series painted a wide picture of life in one Pittsburgh suburb as seen from the point of view of its high school students, and it got simple things that are nonetheless easy to screw up, like how in high school, allegiances shift and you can sometimes suddenly stop being friends with people you were friends with your whole life or how for some guys, it's easier to put it all down on paper than just come out and say it to the object of your affection. But the show also had a clear eye about the parents of this little world. Honestly, has there ever been another teen show that had anything approaching the realism of the stories of what was up with the parents on MSCL? Holzman, like Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, whose thirtysomething she got her start as a writer on, is interested in multi-generational stories about the ways parents and children both support and fail each other.
Huge doesn't have quite as much of that, but it's impressive that Holzman and Dooley are able to work in what they can around the edges of what should be a gimmicky premise and a closed-off setting. You can't, for example, suddenly cut back to suburbia to see what main character Wil's parents are up to. All we know of them is what she tells us and the intense anger she feels toward them, but Holzman and Dooley use who the daughter has become to suggest so much about where she came from that the story of her relationship with her parents works almost completely, despite two of the characters in the relationship not appearing on screen. Similar stories are told for the other people at the camp, even the camp's director, and when a whole family shows up to follow their kid around for a day, they feel like both completely friendly people and unwelcome intruders, like phantom limbs that inexplicably exist again.
The cast for Huge is almost uniformly excellent. Nikki Blonsky brings all of her inherent charisma to Wil, a part that would feel almost completely unlikable were it not played by a girl who was somehow able to project an essential neediness beyond all of her bluster and cruel acts. Gina Torres and Paul Dooley make a wonderful duo as the two camp staffers we get to know the best, with Torres turning in as good of work as she ever has as the caring but firm camp director, Dr. Rand. Hayley Hasselhoff (yes, that Hasselhoff) is similarly terrific as Amber, the thinnest girl at fat camp, who doesn't know how to cope with suddenly having all of the guys' eyes turned toward her, including, seemingly, one of the staffers. The other characters are all sketched in gracefully by a fleet of actors who've turned up in bit parts on other teen shows, usually as objects of derision, and the show's strength is delineating them all as not just "the fat one," but as a multitude of individuals who have their own voices and are beginning to come into them.
The show's tendency toward preachiness comes from how it grapples with the central issue at its core: How concerned should we be about childhood obesity? Obviously, childhood obesity is a big issue, and to the show's credit, it gives equal time to two points of view that shouldn't be in opposition but often are. Dr. Rand deeply, deeply believes teenagers need to be healthy, to get a good start on leading a healthy life, and being obese is rarely the solution to that. But Wil believes that this obsession with health and being thin gives people body image issues that lead to even deeper emotional problems, that you can't really be physically healthy until you're emotionally healthy. To the show's credit, it doesn't bother turning every episode into an All in the Family-style battle of the viewpoints. It more or less acknowledges that both characters are correct and that battling obesity in kids and teenagers is a multi-faceted problem that's not easily solved. But it does have a tendency to let its characters ramble on when expressing these viewpoints, as if a little insecure in the knowledge that the audience can more or less just go with it and accept that the series itself is presenting all of these arguments in the flesh. (Though, honestly, since the show is aimed at 12-year-old girls, it's likely they appreciate the hammer hitting them over the head.)
But any flaws Huge has in its conception are more than made up for in very, very smart storytelling. Holzman and Dooley find ways to illuminate who their characters are by putting them into new pairings and tossing certain characters into new situations where we wouldn't expect to see them. They have a knack for finding ways to move the story forward that should feel cliched but somehow don't, once they're done with them, and, in particular, two scenes - when Wil runs across Dr. Rand in a very different context in tonight's episode and when Wil finds an unlikely surrogate family in the episode "Letters" - suggest that what this show is going to be about, ultimately, is not issues, but people who are brought together in unlikely fashion and somehow forge a brand-new community, dedicated to helping each other out. It's so easy to get this genre wrong. It's so easy to make crappy kids' or teens' entertainment, since they'll usually watch any old shit. But Huge is both heartfelt and surprisingly savvy. I hate to use phrases like this, but it really is one The Whole Family Can Watch Together.