You could have knocked me over with a feather, but ABC Family’s new show Huge is actually sort of interesting.
The premise sounds like one of those shows that seems like it could be worth watching in theory, but also seems like it would be almost impossible to pull off. The setting of Huge is a fat camp, and the pilot begins on the first day, with all the campers gathered together in bathing suits, waiting to get their “before” pictures taken. We meet our protagonist, a rebellious punk-rocker type with purple streaks in her dark hair and a subversive streak a mile wide – her name is Wilhelmina, but she prefers Will. The hierarchy is quickly established, and we have no trouble identifying the socially awkward, the geeks, the popular guys, and the group of cute mean girls who everyone else quickly identifies as not quite fat enough to be attending fat camp. We admire Will’s spunk as she complies with an order to take off her concealing tshirt by doing so while singing and sashaying to striptease music. We recognize that the hottest, thinnest girl, Amber, is also incredibly self-doubting, and we feel for her. After chuckling at Will’s black market candy business, we shake our head with concern as she decides to run away and then sigh with relief when she returns, as she inevitably must. It is, after all, the first episode of a show about fat camp.
The thing is that all those emotional twists and turns are reasonably easy to describe, but far trickier to navigate on screen. How does one go about crafting a camp director character who can be seen as cruelly authoritarian but ultimately dedicated to the task of bettering kids’ health? How do you maintain an environment that is a ridiculous, embarrassing torture chamber run by Big Brother’s thinner sibling while also building that environment as a supportive, well-meaning and potentially helpful place? The prom queen who’s actually sad isn’t that hard to create, but how does one establish sympathy for a protagonist whose defining characteristic is admirable rebellion and then undermine our acceptance of her rebellion in just the first episode?
The answer is: I’m not fully sure, but Huge does it remarkably well. Perhaps the pilot’s biggest victory is making the camp immediately problematic rather than banking on its pure evil or easy source of hope. Each character has a slightly different reaction to the place, and every reaction is valid. Will feels as though it is demanding that she hate her own body, Amber and others see it as a road to achieving their “thin-spiration,” and for some, camp is obviously a source of therapy that happens to also make them exercise. For at least one girl, fat camp triggers her many other insecurities and she is sent home for dangerous binging and purging.
It’s a credit to the show that my favorite moment from the pilot was the title moment, the scene when Amber actually says the word “huge.” She is not referring to herself or the other campers, or even in any reference to body size whatsoever. After flirting with a boy, one of the other campers explains that at a place like this, the playing fields are more level than at home, and that realistically, she could hook up with any guy she wanted at camp. After a shocked silence, Amber whispers excitedly, “this is huge!”
Usually when these moments roll around, they are winking metafictional bits of self-awareness, and almost always come off as either self-mocking, parody, or just flat-footed. This felt more like a show gently chiding its audience for assuming too quickly that it’s just a show about overweight kids. It’s a show about teenagers with social lives, and it’s about how hard it has been for them to be normal teenagers.