Starved centers on the lives of several acquaintances with eating disorders. Like FX’s nip/tuck, it offers cynical commentary on the quest for physical perfection, its unsympathetic characterizations exposing the social conditions that both produce and mirror psychopathology. No doubt many viewers will be repelled by the scenes of vomiting and colonics, the meanness of the characters, the frank talk about sex, and the despair. But the extremes to which the characters go to satisfy their desires are hilarious, imaginative, and a little twisted. The show offers intriguing hints of larger meanings, and of the interconnections between personal and national pathology.
Three men and one woman gather to chitchat and gorge in a coffee shop after their support group meetings, and before embarking on a series of misadventures as they try to satisfy seemingly insatiable longings. The group includes bulimic commodities trader Sam (Eric Schaeffer); bulimic policeman Adam (Sterling K. Brown); Dan (Del Pentecost), a married writer and an overeater; and bulimic bisexual Billie (Laura Benanti), a singer. Surely the similarity to Seinfeld is no accident.
On the surface, the show reproduces conventional views of eating disorders, presenting longing as pathology and linking compulsive eating with sexual desire and ambivalence. In the first scene, Sam nibbles a grapefruit while reading the messages from his online dating service. When he is rejected for a date, he bolts to the basement, where he rummages through the garbage to recover a piece of chocolate cake he had discarded. Later, we see him transfixed by a commercial in which a modern-day Lady Godiva (whom Billie refers to as a “mythical, TV supermodel, perfect woman”) nibbles a tiny chocolate in the back of a Rolls Royce. The image drives Sam to call a young woman he has been using for sex, to set up a liaison. While she is servicing him, he asks her to affect a British accent as he fantasizes about Lady Godiva, hammering home the point that media promote impossible standards of beauty.
Men too must measure up to impossible standards. At the restaurant, after Billy weighs her carrot and leaves to wash it, the three men all weigh their penises on her scale. When Billy figures out what happened, she suggests a homoerotic aspect to the weigh-in: “All of you had your penises on my scale; that seems sort of gay to me… all your dicks touching.”
Concern with gender or sexual identity is occasionally interchangeable with concerns with appearance and behavior. Cultural disapproval of eating disorders is nowhere more evident than in the support group meetings. A Greek chorus of members, crammed in an unfinished room, with 2X4s propped against the wall, responds to each personal disclosure, yelling, “It’s not okay.” A horse-faced, bespectacled leader scowls and threatens members with public exposure of their desperate acts, asking the chorus, “Should we rat him out?” The group is like an internal critic, a bully.
The themes of bullying and domination run throughout the show. Bullying family members—Dan’s wife, Billie’s father—trigger a desire to binge. And, the bullying is internalized as the characters abuse their bodies, first cramming them full of food, then purging. Dan seeks relief from his wife’s bullying by visiting an S&M dungeon run by Mistress Ella, where he tries unsuccessfully to enact a dominant role. Later, in the support group meeting, an aversion therapist applies electrodes to Dan’s forehead and delivers a shock every time Dan reaches for a donut. There are some hints that the individual acts of domination and subjugation reflect the internalization of other prejudices.
Adam, the NYPD policeman, stops an Asian deliveryman on a bicycle, threatening him with a fine if he doesn’t turn over his lo mein. In the support group, we learn that this is a standard ruse of Adam’s “threatening immigrants with trumped up charges.” One can read into the bullying of a foreigner the threats and seizure of his assets similarities with U.S. actions abroad.
Similarly, an immigrant who mans the corner newspaper stand, draws our attention to the irony of self-imposed starvation in the midst of abundance. When Sam eyes the packets of chocolate cake and asks for one, the vendor gives him a disdainful look and says, “Just one?” Sam ultimately buys four, highlighting the contrast between U.S. greed and abundance, and the poverty of the country where the immigrant probably came from.
Sam’s name (like Uncle Sam), his job as a commodities trader, and his fascination with the Lady Godiva commercial further suggest a subtext tying eating disorders with domination and imperialism. Lady Godiva, the historic figure, certainly represents the dominant class. The chocolate—a contemporary commercial association with Lady Godiva and a brand image—is a luxury object, and an object not only of longing for people with eating disorders, but also an unmistakable emblem of colonialization. When the Spanish invaded Mexico, they discovered chocolate, which later became—like sugar and coffee—commodities readied for the market by slaves.
Much as the Seinfeld foursome reflected the shallow, carefree, self-absorption of the ‘90s, the Starved four reflect U.S. anxiety after 9/11. Seinfeld and his friends could eat anything, do anything, roam New York unafraid. Sam and his friends, in contrast, live in constant anxiety and desperation; they are bullies and they are victims.