What could be more entertaining than a self-loathing fat woman? That’s the question Kirstie Alley hopes will propel her out of early retirement. After years of purdah in those supermarket tabloids that make her look hysterical and obese, she has chosen to fight back with a TV series that feeds on her obesity and hysteria. You could say that she’s reclaiming her own humiliation and getting paid for it.
Fat Actress is one of several semi-fictional series that have sprung up in the wake of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The partly improvised comedy is based loosely on Alley’s real life as a washed-up, overweight actress trying to convince television execs to give her a series—although as she pointed out on a recent Letterman appearance, her character is much wilder than she is (and doesn’t seem to have children, as Alley does). The main thing the former Cheers star has in common with her on-screen double is that she’s . . . fat. And don’t think this show will let us forget it. Nearly every joke revolves around her voluminous booty, enormous cleavage, or larger-than-life personality.
The opening scene sets her up as a middle-aged Elizabeth Wurtzel. Depressed by her latest weight gain, Alley sobs and writhes inconsolably on the bathroom floor. When the phone rings, she moans, “I’m dying!” to the friend on the other end of the line, who happens to be John Travolta. He rushes over with a SWAT team—but Alley has already moved on to her next drama queen maneuver. Sitting in her car at a burger stand, she stuffs wads of beef in her mouth while railing to her agent about industry double standards. “John Goodman’s got his own show and Jason Alexander looks like a freakin’ bowling ball!” she shouts, in one of the episode’s genuinely funny moments. “And how about James Gandolfino [sic]? He’s like the size of a whale! He’s way, way, way fatter than I am!” Alley inadvertently proves her point moments later when she meets up with Travolta, who is looking anything but svelte. Yet he’s the one starring in the new John Woo film, and she’s the one begging him to consider a fourth Look Who’s Talking movie. “We’ve never had talking cats,” she cajoles. “We could have Chris Rock as a talking cat!”
The show’s producers are pitching Fat Actress as a show about self-acceptance, and Alley herself suggests in the production notes that it’s “about being uncomfortable with your weight, your sexuality, the way you eat—everything you’re uncomfortable with—because it’s not ever quite right. It’s funny and frightening at the same time.” I’m a sucker for bawdy female characters who have fun with the darker side of femininity, like the ladies of Ab Fab, and I’d love it if Alley mined this territory more. (She does have fun lampooning a diet guru who proposes everything from a ballistic dose of laxatives that kicks in at an inconvenient time to barfing with the aid of something stylish like “a Mont Blanc pen, a cloisonné chopstick.”) Unfortunately, most of the laughs in the first two episodes emerge from pure fat-phobia, which is neither new nor particularly uproarious, except in the most knee-jerk way. In one scene, Alley struts down the hallway of NBC, oblivious to the fact that everyone she passes is gawking at her excess poundage. Just in case we don’t get it, the soundtrack blares the song “Bubble Butt.” All the suits make nice to the former starlet, but as soon as she leaves, real-life NBC exec Jeff Zucker gasps, “Did you see how fat she is? She’s fatter than ever!”
Fat Actress is a queasy mix of self-hatred, self-confidence, and self-delusion—everything about it makes me uncomfortable. Of course, Curb Your Enthusiasm has primed us to equate discomfort with entertainment, like a wife in an abusive relationship who mistakes spite for affection. Fat Actress may be cultivating the association with Curb (executive producer Sandy Chanley worked on its first two seasons), but Alley’s character and scripts just don’t display the kind of nimble complexity that fuels Larry David’s genius. Although David appears to mock himself, he’s also satirizing the absurd, petty world around him. Alley has painted an indelible X on one central target: her own ass.