Nerds Rush In

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: From left, Eric Leibowitz/Courtesy of FX; Bruce Birmelin/Courtesy of ABC Family

Louis C.K. is a celebrated comedian—curmudgeonly, dirty-mouthed, deadpan, surreal. In 2006, he had a failed sitcom on HBO, and while his new series Louie, on FX, is a better fit for his talents, for me, at least, that’s not enough.

Mostly, the problem is self-pity, always a danger in a show based on one’s life. As a comic, Louis C.K. is an original, but as a character, he’s a familiar figure: the angry, lonely, aggressive anti-hero, blurting out raw insights. He’s House, Greenberg, late Woody Allen; most especially, he’s Larry David, softened by fatherhood. He’s a recently divorced Charlie Brown with a Tourette’s streak, cracking shame-sex jokes and trying and failing to be a good guy. There’s a gag about his daughter having an “infected vagina,” a Curb Your Enthusiasm punch line from last season. He berates a bad date, she jumps into a helicopter. Ricky Gervais has a grim cameo as a doctor. There are scenes that click, bits that shock, but every 30 seconds, the show lurches from funny to not.

The strongest parts are the stand-up, like his “best-case scenario” for marriage (your best friend dies) and a gonzo monologue about a mass grave for dogs. But since his onstage delivery is so loose, so sharp, it makes the “dramatized” bits pale in contrast—with a few exceptions, like a funny set piece about a hot chick fetishizing middle-age men (“you smell … I don’t know, like dying?”) and sequences of Louie bullshitting with fellow comics, though even these get sentimental. I’ve met guys who love this show, and I’ll bet it speaks to a certain audience—maybe if I identified with Louie more, it would feel cathartic. (The Sex and the City problem, gender-switched.) As a self-pity sitcom, it hangs together better than Hung. But if I were going to pick one midlife series? I’d stick with uncut Larry David, or go with the mellower Men of a Certain Age—a show that, like Louie, is about divorce, mortality, and money, but manages to be at once kinder and deeper.

I doubt there’s any audience overlap between Louie and Huge, but ABC Family’s fat-camp drama has a similar protagonist, teen-girl division: She’s the angry, lonely, aggressive anti-heroine, blurting out raw insights. She’s Daria, she’s Darlene Conner, she’s old-school Janeane Garofalo with blue streaks in her hair and 50 extra pounds. But whereas every character on Louie (from the lazy bus driver to the drunk mom to the southern hick) seems designed to make Louie look good in contrast, Huge surrounds its schnozzy, snotty rebel Willamena with characters just as interesting as she is, letting us see the limits of her bravado.

Produced by My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman and her daughter, Savannah Dooley, Huge opened strong: Willamena protests the fat camp’s “before” bathing-suit photo shoot with a mocking striptease, ending with a slap on both ass-cheeks and a shake of her cellulite. It was a great shock moment, a corrective to TV’s parade of Botoxed lawyers and diva schoolgirls. But when Will announced, “Everybody wants us to hate our bodies. I refuse to do that,” I worried that Huge might turn into fat-acceptance agitprop: feel-good diversity porn, like Glee’s cornier elements.

Instead, over the first several episodes, Huge has done something far more ambitious, unfolding a delicate portrait of a secret subculture—an inverted society in which everyone is fat. No longer the victims of bullies, the campers form their own castes. And though they’re supposed to be losing weight, the all-fat community can feel liberating, with the popular girls marveling at how easy it is to wear a bathing suit in public and a shy girl shaking it to “Baby Got Back” in the talent show. No one is a cartoon: Even the staff is sharply delineated, right down to the militaristic aerobics coach.

As in any teen show, there are certain expected tropes: the funny Jewish geeks, the breathy-voiced beauty and her envious beta companion, our snarky heroine’s sarcastic zingers. But as in My So-Called Life (which the show formally resembles, with its melodic, moody soundtrack and drifting camerawork), they feel like real, contradictory figures, the power dynamics shifting endlessly.

Hairspray’s Nikki Blonsky gives a bold performance as Will, but the most interesting character may be Amber (Hayley Hasselhoff), a blonde doll with a rosebud mouth. As the thinnest girl at fat camp, she’s in a temporary Utopia where every boy moons after her, even the hot counselor. In any other show, she might be the cartoon meanie, but instead, she’s a fascinating feminine mystery: fluttering, vulnerable, manipulative, sweet, at once cautious and self-assured, with her wall of “thinspiration” and a sign reading beauty comes from within. (To protest, Will puts up “fatspiration” and a collage reading screw body fascism.)

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: From left, Matthew Welch/Courtesy of AMC; Craig Blankenhorn/Courtesy of AMC

The show isn’t perfect. I love the actress Gina Torres, so kick-ass in Firefly, but her larger-than-life elegance is an odd match for the neurotic head counselor. Some voice-overs—letters home never sent—are syrupy, and there’s the occasional, overly literal musical underlines (call it the “Hey Jealousy” technique). But this is a smart show. The obvious comparison is Freaks and Geeks, but I’m also reminded of the Cosby spinoff A Different World, which revolutionized television simply by being set at a black college. Free to show more than one black kid at a time, it had no sassy sidekicks or null best friends. Instead, it had an array of buppy princesses, nerds, politicos, and so on, letting the characters be the villains and the heroes of their own stories.

And then there’s Rubicon, a new mystery-conspiracy drama on AMC—where the nerds are not angry and funny and fat, just very, very worried. A salve for those mourning Lost,Rubicon is a paranoid political thriller packed with intelligence analysts, symbolic four-leaf clovers, think tanks, code-breaking retired spies, 9/11 tragedies, sleek widows, hot secretaries, and a six-pack of mad geniuses with messy hair and intimacy issues. In theory, this should be paranoiac catnip, but we’ve been through this so many times (Twin Peaks, Alias, Lost, V, FlashForward) that it comes down to whether we can trust the puzzle-makers. So far, it’s slow going, though the Matthew Morrison–look-alike hero (played by The Pacific’s James Badge Dale) has appeal. Here’s hoping they don’t end up in purgatory.

Tuesdays. 11 p.m. Fx.
Mondays. 9 p.m. ABC Family.
Premieres Sunday. August 1. 8 p.m. AMC.

Nerds Rush In