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Huge: "Spirit Quest"

I've spent much of the past couple of weeks pestering assorted people along the AV Club chain of command to let me add ABC Family's Huge to our lineup. It's actually grown from a promising pilot and second episode to become a much richer, deeper, and more complicated show than it seemed like it might be from the first. It's gone from just being a really solid show for teenagers to being a really solid show, period, and it's figured out a way to take what seemed like a limiting premise and make it seem like the most natural thing in the world to tell stories about. The last two episodes, in particular - "Talent Night" and "Movie Night" - have been really wonderful, and it's probably my second favorite new series of the summer after Louie. (This doesn't seem like that much of a compliment until you consider just how many new shows have debuted this summer.)

It also helped that so many of you bugged me via Twitter and e-mail about when we were going to start covering this show. I realized that, yeah, there would be an audience for write-ups of the series, and I'm hopeful that there are enough of you that we can talk about the show's ins and outs for many seasons to come. (If all of you don't read and/or comment on this article, I'm going to track you down, one by one.) Huge doesn't have nearly the audience of the show that precedes it - The Secret Life of the American Teenager - but the audience it does have is passionate and ready to dissect the way the show does melodrama while avoiding obvious melodrama. It's a nifty trick, and co-creators Winnie Holzman and Savannah Dooley have created a show where expected confrontations are thwarted at every turn and the full complexities of the kids' emotions are given the amount of weight they deserve.

Naturally, of course, Huge picked tonight to have its worst episode yet, a mostly plodding hour devoted to some pretty stupid plotting and a moment when George was able to save Will and Amber because he saw his grandfather's spirit animal in the woods. Yeah. It was that kind of episode.

So let's just assume you didn't watch tonight's show, and you're curious about the series, having not been talked off the fence by the mostly kind ink the series has received. It is, after all, on ABC Family, and it is, after all, about fat camp and ostensibly aimed at kids 10-15 (despite what seems to be a growing cult adult audience). Why should you be watching (outside of tonight's episode)? Well, honestly, this has grown into one of the more honest series I've ever seen about adolescence. That should be no surprise, considering it comes from Holzman, but even I'm impressed with the way the series has gotten past summer camp cliches to become about something more than just its central idea. This isn't a show about kids at a fat camp anymore. It's a show about kids who go to camp in the summer and find a kind of haven away from the crushing existence back home. And that's a much more relatable idea.

The best thing Huge has done is take summer camp mainstays and turn them into the things that episodes revolve around. So movie night becomes a whole episode, which becomes less about movie night and more about how kids express themselves through the pop culture they like (often liking things because of how it makes them appear more than for actually liking it) or about how they use that culture to try to attract other like-minded souls. Talent night becomes an episode about how hard it can be to find a way out of your shell as an adolescent, and the idea of writing a letter home to your family becomes an episode about how hard it is to relate to your parents once you pass the age of, say, 10. What's great about the series is that not only the campers are wrapped up in all of this. Gina Torres (turning in borderline Emmy-worthy work) is similarly wrapped up in these stories as camp director Dr. Rand, and Paul Dooley's Joe, Dr. Rand's dad, has become a voice of reason for all of the characters to turn to. There are characters to relate to at every level of age, from the younger campers, up to the older campers, up to the twentysomething counselors, up to the camp directors.

That said, "Spirit Quest" mostly botches this idea by heading away from the series' penchant for realism and toward the melodrama it mostly skillfully avoids. I thought we might be in for something special when the episode began with some of the characters in the camp equivalent of church (with Will and Ian both outside, listening to "This Little Light of Mine"). TV handles religion clumsily most of the time, and one of the strengths of My So-Called Life (Holzman's previous series) was that it figured out a way to approach religious matters in a mostly straightforward way (aside from that whole angel thing). Holzman has a certain dash of mysticism to her, but she's mostly down to earth about this sort of thing, and she's never preachy, one way or the other.

Instead, we headed off into the wilderness with George and Poppy, the kids paired off arbitrarily to create maximum drama, and it all devolved into a storm of bickering. Considering that the series has been much smarter about pairing off characters to create scenes that enlighten us about these people and how they interact, this was a disappointment. A few of the pairings - I'm thinking Alistair and Trent, in particular - were handled well and resulted in a handful of really good scenes. But pairing up, say, Amber and Will was just the most obvious thing the show could do, and this is a show that flirts with the obvious without ever quite committing to it. This lessened my entire interest in the characters once they got lost, and reducing the whole storyline to that moment where Will had a donut in her hand and was contemplating eating it was a mildly irritating return to the premise the show was learning to leave behind. It's one of those moments that often come along when a first-season show is organically evolving into something else and the writers realize with a start that, crap, they haven't had anyone be tempted by fatty foods in a while.

I think what most disappointed me about the spirit quest was just how prosaic it was. The mysticism was there, to be sure, but none of it ever felt in the slightest bit out there or unexpected. I don't mind when heightened reality encroaches on an otherwise realistic show, but nothing in the central story of "Spirit Quest" worked. Fortunately, there's lots of stuff around the central story, which leads us to ...

Stray observations:

  • Frankly, the Trent and Alistair scenes just about saved this entire episode for me. They were really finely and sensitively written, and they dealt with getting some of the series' big secrets out there in a way that wasn't melodramatic or cloying. There was just some really elegant writing to these scenes, and it's that quality of storytelling I've come to expect from the show.
  • More elegant storytelling: Becca watches Chloe, now attracting the guys she pined for last year, and flashes back to the year before when Chloe was gawkier and the two were friends. Again, it's not underlined, which makes the show that much better.
  • On the other hand, I don't need to see a George and Amber relationship storyline. It's obvious that every camp show is going to do a "counselor flirts with camper" storyline, and this one has been mostly sensitively handled. I don't even find it all that icky, which I think some viewers do. I just don't know what more the series is going to say about this camp or these campers via this storyline. I'd be much more interested in some sort of George and Poppy pairing. Yeah.
  • Meanwhile, Dr. Rand goes on a date with fence guy. It's a nice enough storyline, but I was more impressed by last week, when she put aside her attraction for the good of her campers.
  • This is the first ABC Family show we've added permanently here at the TV Club. We've discussed adding Greek, and I'm sure there was talk about adding Middleman back in the day (that was before my time), but this is the first actual show we're tackling from the network, which has grown into a quietly reliable little network, outside of its signature show (which is awful, but in a mesmerizing way). Here's hoping the promotion of network head Paul Lee doesn't doom this show.

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