By: Aleks Chan
Touchy is the subject of one’s self image. We will at the same time glamorize the frail, shining figures of movie starlets as they grace the cover of a magazine as we trumpet the powers of inner beauty as a greater reflection of one’s character. For every show stalked with leggy, tanned twenty-somethings there’s likely to be a form of counterprogramming in a makeover/weight loss/reinvention program. Both types of shows have proven successful, but have yet to settle the dueling schools of thought: At what point (if such a place exists) along the inner vs. outer beauty spectrum, does true “beauty” shine?
PLAIN JANE, though it argues for the former, is strongly rooted in the latter, perhaps even unknowingly. The premiere opens to a montage of “Plain Janes” cribbed from bad Katherine Heigl movies and a Taylor Swift music video in which they play characters we are meant to suspend their obvious Hollywood beauty and accept them as “normal” looking. That no actual “normal” woman would be cast in either role and that this warped image of normality is a contributor to so many’s self-loathing is an irony completely lost on this show, which touts as its tagline: “Transforming you from the inside out.”
Hosted by fashionista and overall cheeky Brit, Louise Roe (who herself wouldn’t be out of place in a fashion spread), the show takes one girl each week in dire need of help and intervention and turns them around to conquer feats of fashion, hair, and dating. The premiere stars Cristen, a mousy music business worker who is madly in love with her friend of six years, but lacks the confidence to make a move. In comes Louise, who walks us and Cristen through a series of steps to transform our stringy-haired girl into a well-tressed woman. The process is a bizarre pastiche of transformative style programs and FEAR FACTOR challenges: In order to earn a shopping spree, Cristen is forced to overcome her immobilizing fear of snails by reaching inside a giant vase of the sluggers – in a later step, she is given a minor electric shock for incorrectly hitting on guys at a dog park.
Hair and makeup follow and by the end of the episode all has fallen (rather too conveniently) into place. I’d be interested to see a followup segment, months after Louise has left her, just to see if her tips have stuck – I’d expect them to, seeing how this poor girl seemed so intimidated by what fresh hell this Brit might incur next. Throughout the process Cristen can’t help but emphatically (though it appears insincerely) agree with everything Louise throws at her, hoping to not have to face another daunting challenge. Apparently, to transform a Plain Jane is to scare it out of her. Fine, but as a indistinguishable, trifling hour of fashion, hair, and bugs, it could use some sprucing up.
HUGE, a teen drama set at a weight-loss camp called Camp Victory, offers an interesting cross-section of the inner-vs.-outer beauty argument: Where does feeling confident and comfortable with your body intersect with being healthy? Based on the young-adult novel by Sasha Paley and helmed by MY SO-CALLED LIFE creator Winnie Holzman, it offers a strictly nonjudgmental viewpoint of understanding, acceptance, and support, staged against a less successful dramedy that features a winning turn by Hairspray’s Nikki Blonksy.
Blonksy plays Willamina (or Will, as she prefers to be called), a sarcastic, opinionated teen who is determined to gain weight during her stay, contingent in her belief that she is being made to hate herself for her weight, turning the the blame to societal obsession. She hoards a secret stash of junk food and begins dealing to her fellow campers, ensuing a fun scene where Will is perched inside a bathroom stall like a notorious dealer of contraband. She blithely tosses aside the remarks of stern camp director Dr. Rand (Gina Torres) and quickly befriends repeat camper Becca (Raven Goodwin) and makes merry torturing the thinner and radiant Amber (Hayley Hasselhoff, daughter of David).
Will’s attitude is of course a defense mechanism against her own unhappiness, her brazenness a form of liberation she needs to survive. In the opening scene of the pilot, she is reluctant to appear in her bathing suit, but after being harped on by Dr. Rand, she turns her insecurity into empowerment: she performs an aggressive, hyper-sexualized striptease, whipping her clothes off before the camp director with palpable defiance. Shortly after, she audibly regrets her actions, quickly crossing her arms to hide behind herself.
This is where HUGE succeeds: pinpointing those delicate moments when denial becomes acceptance, however painful or powerful they may be. It at times is in serious danger of playing it too close to an after school special (it handles a bulimia story line with almost too much righteousness and tears), though this seems to be more of an after effect of what is really an overwrought, conventional drama. Too often does the show turn to moody music, histrionics, and sullen glares across the screen; Will’s lines are notably zipless. It’s admirable how HUGE explores the relationship between weight acceptance and self esteem, but it would be better served by a punchier, less melodramatic delivery. Perhaps this is a future case for Louise Roe.
PLAIN JANE premieres Wednesday July 28 at 9PM on the CW, HUGE airs on ABC FAMILY on Mondays at 9PM
Is a contributing writer to The TV Addict. He has seen every episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER four times, has once referred to his DVR as his “best friend,” and has only seen the pilot episode of THE SOPRANOS — and has no intention to apologize for it. He lives in Austin, Texas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter (@alekstvaddict). His name is pronounced like Alex.