The Small Screen Thinks Big


Sensitively Told Stories About Americans With Weight Challenges Mark Tv's Turn To A New Kind Of Programming

July 12, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,

Call it the summer of plus-size love.

While everything else in the culture and on television these days seems to be getting downsized, now comes a series of shows featuring fuller-size contestants and characters. More importantly, in a couple of cases, the heavyweight folks are being treated with love rather than derision - a break from the usual depiction accorded such character types in prime time.

Last week, the Oxygen channel premiered Dance Your Ass Off, a weekly series described by host Marissa Jaret Winokur as "TV's first ever dance-weight loss competition."

A cross between NBC's long-running Biggest Loser, now in its seventh season, and Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, the cable series was the most-watched premiere in Oxygen history - and it scored highest among young women, an audience most attractive to advertisers.

Last week also brought the start of Season 2 of Ruby, the Style Network's reality series about Savannah, Ga., native Ruby Gettinger's weight-loss journey. Last season, Gettinger, who started the series at 500 pounds, lost more than 100 pounds, and is living a much healthier lifestyle with more exercise and less need for multiple diabetes medications.

The show, which so far has been done with considerable sensitivity, has been good for the cable channel as well - doing record ratings for Style with its debut audience of more than half a million viewers in November.

And tonight, the first scripted series of the summer featuring a plus-sized character arrives as Lifetime unveils Drop Dead Diva starring Broadway performer Brooke Elliott (Wicked).

The clever comic premise finds a not-very-bright, self-absorbed model dying in an auto accident and returning to Earth in the plus-sized body of a super-smart attorney played by Elliott. In the pilot, at least, brains and education are celebrated over traditional media notions of stick-thin beauty. Here's a series that has a strong cast, great writing and what could prove to be an enlightened exploration of body and self-image.

Perhaps the most intriguing entry of all is scheduled to arrive July 28, when Fox presents the reality TV series More to Love. According to Mike Darnell, president of alternative programming at Fox, the show is based on the premise that millions of viewers are tired of looking at magazine-cover beautiful young people fall in love - and want instead to look at dating show contestants who look more like themselves. The idea is to replace the beautifully sculpted contestants of shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette with an overweight guy looking for a plus-sized woman to love.

Darnell is a whiz at creating new reality TV concepts and not only making ratings magic with them, but also making it sound as if the series are going to make the world a better place. The results are sometimes more along the lines of his Joe Millionaire creation, a failed dating series that showed greed to be at least as strong an aphrodisiac as love.

But it is fascinating to see Darnell probe social reality and try to exploit the national psyche.

"This is the first dating competition show in television history that reflects what most real single men and women look like, which makes it instantly relatable to the vast majority of people in the dating pool," Darnell said in announcing the series.

"This is a dating show that sends the right message about embracing and loving yourself no matter your shape or size," added executive producer Mike Fleiss, creator of TV's most successful reality dating competition, The Bachelor. "When you are comfortable with your own body, you can really allow yourself to be open to the possibility of finding the right person to love."

Producer Scott Sternberg, whose game show and reality TV resume stretches back to Love Connection, says the series was unofficially known in Hollywood as The Fatchelor before Fox decided on its current name: "Instead of losing weight, they're going to try to find love," Sternberg says. "So, I guess the transformational part is anybody can find a date - or a mate."

With reality shows, Sternberg says, "You start with transformation. That's what everybody is looking for: transformational stories. That's the end game when it comes to these kinds of shows."

With plus-sized contestants and characters, their bodies are usually the very sites of transformation. That's as straightforward a visual statement of the theme as one can get - making it a perfect topic for television, which speaks primarily in images rather than words. Check out the before-and-after galleries at the Web sites for shows like The Biggest Loser.

But some analysts believe there is more than just physical transformation going on behind the scenes with the number and popularity of shows featuring full-bodied characters this summer. Those factors range from American lifestyles and the economy, to the rise of targeted channels that can speak to selective audiences based on such factors as gender.

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