Not So Simple
In October of 2003, ABC aired the news special, Fat Like Me: How to Win the Weight War, in which a 15-year-old, 125-pound girl was dressed in a fat suit so she appeared to weigh 200 pounds. She enrolled in a new high school, where cameras in her glasses and backpack recorded the teasing she endured. The girl described her experience as “hell,” and wondered how overweight people suffer through such cruelty.
Kirstie Alley could tell her how, because Kirstie Alley is fat. When she was a regular on Cheers, Alley weighed about 135, and was regarded by many as one of the sexiest and most attractive women on tv. Recently, her weight peaked at 207 pounds (and reports have it at 250). While the cause is easy to identify (too much free time and too much food), the consequences are not so simple.
Frustrated by the lack of work available to her, Alley made her own work, teaming up with 7th Heaven creator Brenda Hampton to produce Fat Actress, now airing on Showtime. The show fictionalizes Alley’s struggle to obtain employment while also trying to lose weight. As the series opens, her only job offer is to represent Jenny Craig. Kirstie, the character, is a pathetic sight, crawling across her bathroom floor, sobbing that she is “dying.” But the prospect of a meeting with NBC president Jeff Zucker and the offer of a double cheeseburger raise her spirits.
To prepare for the meeting, Kirstie seeks advice from her assistant Eddie (Bryan Callen) and hairdresser and make-up artist Kevyn (Rachael Harris), who enable her self-destructive and frequently delusional behavior. They suggest, for instance, that she “pursue black men,” who appreciate “bigger” women. After unsuccessful prowling at a soul food restaurant, Kirstie winds up in bed with Max Cooper (guest star Mark Curry), head of development for NBC. The one-nighter ruins Kirstie’s shot at a series for the network, and she winds up resigned to her fate as the spokeswoman for Jenny Craig.
Alley maintains that her series doesn’t mean to “stick it to Hollywood,” but it’s filled with barbs aimed at the entertainment industry. Foremost, of course, are the digs at a business that casts larger women in secondary roles while giving overweight men top billing. After meeting with Kirstie, Zucker and his staff launch a barrage of insults about her weight. (As Fat Like Me showed, this type of behind-the-back mockery is all too real.) At the same time, John Goodman and Jason Alexander have no problem finding work. Kirstie observes that Brando never heard the words, “Hey, Marlon, you’re too fat to do Apocalypse Now.” While her points are valid, her objections would be more palatable if she were an advocate for all fat people, instead of ridiculing overweight men.
Even in this presentation of herself as a fat woman, Alley is inconsistent. Kirstie protests that her weight gain shouldn’t affect people’s view of her as an actress. But she eats perpetually and grotesquely: in one humiliating scene, she barks like a dog to get Max to feed her a slab of roast beef. The only “nutritional advice” she gets, from a diet guru (guest star Kelly Preston), is to try bulimia, but to use something pretty to make herself vomit. She soon gives up her efforts with a peacock feather when she spies a chocolate donut.
At the same time, Alley fails to take into account two other factors that harm actresses’ careers: her age and her hiatus. In First Wives’ Club, Goldie Hawn’s character complains that there are three stages for actresses: “Ingénue, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.” Alley is in those DA years, when roles for women are few, meaning she is competing with more actresses for a small number of parts. She’s also attempting to restart her career after taking a break to raise her children (who, mercilessly, don’t appear here). She is not the first actress to face this dilemma (see also: Demi Moore and the late Carrie Snodgress). And with a new tv series and a major ad campaign built around her, the truth is that, despite her weight, age, and hiatus, Alley’s career is in much better shape than other ‘80s tv actresses, such as Julia Duffy, Meredith Baxter, and Alley’s Cheers predecessor, Shelley Long.
The show’s illogic is applied to race issues as well. After Kirstie describes meeting Max to her posse, Kevyn questions, “Wait a minute. A black network executive?” From here, the show makes repeated use of raced stereotypes: black men like big booty, black men are well hung, black women are jealous of white women. It’s possible that such lapses result from the show’s improvisational style—each episode begins with a story arc and some dialogue, but the rest is off the cuff. But it’s hard to say whether the improv or the script is so tired.
For all its shortcomings, though, Fat Actress has the potential to be groundbreaking, for its insistence that fat women can be sexy and that weight and appeal aren’t interconnected. If Alley would stop wallowing in her self-pity and face her predicament with a more honest assessment of the numerous factors affecting her career, viewers would find it easier to feel sympathy for her. And at bottom, the goal of Fat Actress is to become a series about a formerly fat actress. Alley is actually the spokeswoman for Jenny Craig, whose new ads trumpet her recent 20-pound loss. But even as she loses weight, she won’t likely be losing her edge. As Alley told the New York Times, “When you look around the world and see what’s going on, and real hardship, how can I go, ‘Oh, God, I gained 60 pounds?’ I mean, who cares?” Right.