Ellen Gray: A weighty issue: Why aren't there more fat people on TV?

Gabourey Sidibe's character is hounded about her weight on "The Big C."
Gabourey Sidibe's character is hounded about her weight on "The Big C."
Posted: November 09, 2010

MARIE CLAIRE blogger Maura Kelly stepped in a pile of doo-doo last month with a post about CBS' "Mike & Molly" that suggested she'd "be grossed out if I had to watch two [TV] characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other," but wasn't she just reinforcing what many in Hollywood have believed about TV viewers for years?

The estimated two-thirds of American adults who are overweight may be meeting and marrying - and, yes, kissing - every day, but when they watch TV they're more likely to see actors almost thin enough to fit inside their flat screens than they are to see anyone who looks like them (and isn't being screamed at by Jillian Michaels).

Why? Because many TV programmers, even if they're not stupid enough to say so publicly, believe most of us think like Kelly. That we might be OK with shows like NBC's "The Biggest Loser" or Bravo's "Thintervention with Jackie Warner," which focus on trimming the fat, but that we're not as interested in seeing them off the treadmill, much less dating. Not that Kelly, a thirtysomething writer whose Marie Claire blog ostensibly focuses on her efforts to find love for the first time, is the best test audience. By her own admission, she's "not much of a TV person," and seems to have formed her opinion of the show from a CNN story pointed out by her editor.

"Mike & Molly," meanwhile, has been averaging nearly 12.3 million viewers a week, and the sitcom, which stars Billy Gardell ("My Name Is Earl") and Melissa McCarthy ("Gilmore Girls") as a couple who met at Overeaters Anonymous, is the only new comedy to regularly crack Nielsen's Top 20 in the 18-49 demographic advertisers pay to reach.

Those kind of numbers have been known to melt prejudice, even if "Mike & Molly" isn't necessarily out to do that.

"This isn't a show about weight," executive producer Chuck Lorre, who also produces CBS' "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory," insisted to reporters this summer. " 'Big Bang' isn't a show about geniuses or nerds. They're both ensemble shows."

It was during that Television Critics Association press conference that I began to wonder, though, if being fat on television weren't merely the latest twist in the diversity discussion.

In 16 years covering television, I've seen executives and producers grilled regularly about so-called "colorblind" casting and about the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities, and more recently, of gays and lesbians, on scripted shows.

Other than during discussions of shows like Lifetime's "Drop Dead Diva" or perhaps ABC Family's now-canceled "Huge," I don't remember size coming up.

Still, I was as surprised as Lorre seemed to be when someone suggested "Mike & Molly" was "politically incorrect."

"No," replied Lorre. "It's about real people with real issues trying to have a relationship and - "

"Who are normally never seen on TV," said the questioner.

"Well, that might be what you're talking about, is that television would normally have cast Chris O'Donnell and Courteney Cox as the people who meet at Overeaters Anonymous," said Lorre. Another reporter asked if the show might help people "get healthier."

"It depends on what you mean by 'get healthier,' "replied McCarthy (who recalls having been "between a size 4 and a 6" when an agent told her, "You're never going to work at that weight").

"I think any time that you see a broad spectrum of people on TV, whatever that is, I think it's good just to have something a little more realistic so people aren't always striving - it's like, 'Oh, I could never be that perfect.' It's like, 'Well, guess what? No one is except in this little set somewhere in Hollywood.' . . . I think it just takes the pressure off some people."

Though weight loss was never meant to be the focus of "Mike & Molly," show creator Mark Roberts said afterward that "the OA meeting says . . . that these are people that are aware they have a problem."

So is it the industry or the audience that won't accept overweight people who aren't trying to change?

"I think, unfortunately, that [in] the landscape of television, that you have to explain why you're putting normal people back on TV," Roberts said.

" 'Friends' was one of the greatest comedies ever, but I think it ruined multi-cameras [sitcoms] in a way because everyone thought it had to be . . . beautiful people who were really funny," he said.

"Everybody's been trying to repeat that, and what ends up happening is you have shows where the characters have no real struggle . . . you ultimately can't laugh with them, because you don't believe them," he said.

"Truthfully, Chuck [Lorre] is the only guy keeping flawed people on television and finding the humor and humanity in them."

Well, not quite.

There are shows where not being a Size 2 doesn't relegate extra-large actors to extra status.

Fox's "Glee" dealt with weight in an episode in which Amber Riley's character joined the Cheerios. Gabourey Sidibe ("Precious") has had a recurring role on Showtime's "The Big C" (where Laura Linney's character has been attempting to bribe Sidibe's to lose weight). Eric Stonestreet, the Emmy-winning actor from ABC's "Modern Family," plays a character who weekly defies the stereotype that gay men are, as Jerry Seinfeld once suggested, "thin and neat."

"Huge," produced by "My So-Called Life" creator Winnie Holzman and her daughter, Savannah Dooley, starred Nikki Blonsky ("Hairspray") as a not-so-happy camper at a summer weight-loss program.

Remarkably, ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," still one of the most-watched scripted shows on television, has gotten away with not even discussing the weight of some of its characters and with handing out the love-based story lines irrespective of size.

By contrast, "Drop Dead Diva" doesn't so much ignore weight as it acknowledges that different bodies seem to come with different sets of instructions.

For "Drop Dead Diva" star Brooke Elliott, who plays a plus-sized lawyer named Jane whose body is inhabited by the spirit of an aspiring model named Deb, it was important "that it wasn't about turning Jane into Deb," she said this summer.

"There's beauty everywhere, and we're conditioned to miss it. Because it doesn't look like this particular thing. If you eradicate the myth that beauty has to look like this certain package, then you see beauty everywhere, and in every person," she said.

Elliott's slightly built boss, "Diva" creator Josh Berman ("CSI," "Bones"), doesn't look like a guy who'd understand some women are hungrier - or gain weight more easily - than others, but appearances can be deceiving, he said.

"I come from a family [where] my father and mother go to Pritikin two weeks every six months. It's always about them. My father's a plastic surgeon . . . They always want to lose weight. I grew up in a family where I wasn't allowed to have sugar for four years, except on my birthday, on which I would gorge as much sugar as possible," Berman said. "I can eat what I want. I have a brother who if he eats the same thing, would be 400 pounds."

"Drop Dead Diva," he said, isn't about weight so much as it is about identity.

"I don't ever pretend to understand what it means to be an overweight woman, but I do understand what it means to be an outsider, and that's how I write the show," Berman said.

Holzman called "Huge" a "passion project" for her daughter, who developed it from Sasha Paley's young-adult novel about kids at a weight-loss camp.

"Casting was so hard," said Dooley, "because I think overweight people just eventually learn not to try to make it in acting. Our pool of who to choose from was so small. We were really scared that we weren't going to find anyone."

Holzman recalled resistance when she cast one girl who was "a little bit chubby" for a few episodes of "My So-Called Life."

" 'Roseanne' was on the air then. But 'Roseanne' was 'Roseanne,' " she said, adding that "Roseanne" "was never about them being fat . . . [and] we don't really think of 'Huge' as being about being fat."

Yet when the casting came together, Holzman said, "We were so proud. Because even if our writing never measured up, just the statement of putting that group of kids on a drama show and saying these are the stars of the show, that was a powerful message. . . . That was a good feeling, that we represented how people look." *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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