14 February 2014
Rebel Wilson is a very hit-or-miss talent. In exactly the right circumstances, she’s wonderful. In others, she’s just too big (in a non-physical sense). Occasionally, her sitcom Super Fun Night reflects that. The misleading pilot episode (which ABC never should have aired but, for some reason, stuck in mid-season), for instance, has a lot of go-for-broke jokes that completely lack subtlety and therefore completely lack smart comic value (the ones that come most readily to mind are the many about Marika’s possible lesbianism). But then Kimmie Boubier busts into her “inspiration song” (Wicked’s Defying Gravity, natch) and everything is right in the world.
Like its creator/star, Super Fun Night is flawed (that American accent is rocky as hell) but I like it. Sometimes it’s a little roll-your-eyes silly and sometimes it could strive to be a little more creative but, without competition, it’s my favourite new show that came out of the 2013 fall season and it should absolutely be a part of the 2014 season.
Here’s my long-winded way of telling you why (plus extra points for using Queen for the theme song and for having the goofiest, most fun episode tags ever).
One of my closest friends is an impossibly pretty little ingénue with whom I argue almost constantly. It’s jovial arguing, for the most part, since our taste profiles tend to ultimately run parallel, but we had an argument recently about Super Fun Night that really got me thinking about the show in a larger sense. This particular friend of mine has always had a knack for relating to characters whom superficially one might assume she could never relate to. So, when the subject of Rebel Wilson hit our dinner table, it was on. Here’s me on one side, quoting Fat Amy* lines to my overworked heart’s content. Here’s her on the other side, lobbing every piece of outsider cred she has to prove to me that she would be able to relate to Super Fun Night (*Backstory of this argument: this friend is also my most loyal reader. She trusts my taste in TV and will try anything I say is good. This conversation began when I told her Super Fun Night was my favourite new show of the season but I wasn’t sure if it was objectively meritorious enough that she would like it as much as I do without a close association to the protagonist. I have since decided that it is*).
But here’s the wonderful, important, refreshing thing about Super Fun Night: outsider cred isn’t what you need to relate to the show’s heroine. That stuff gets you in the door with Glee, with Ugly Betty, with Freaks & Geeks– really, being able to relate to feelings of isolation and awkwardness, that’ll make relating to any fictional character in the entire post-modern creative world a lot easier. Specifically, the concept of not feeling beautiful enough (for whatever reason, especially if it’s a little bit/mostly in your head) is a story that’s been played and continues to be played in almost every medium as it relates to young female characters (the world sucks, I know, but that’s a subject for another time). What I like about Super Fun Night is that Kimmie Boubier is not an outsider. Yeah, she’s fat, so what? Kimmie Boubier is a badass. She’s a successful lawyer, she has two best friends who would do anything for her, she knows what she wants and how to make herself happy. Kimmie Boubier is the most confident woman in the building. The only problem Kimmie Boubier has with her weight is her annoyance at how much of a problem the rest of the world seems to have with it. And the show doesn’t pretend that’s nothing. Wilson has written in all the casual unkindness and easy disregard that she likely has met every day of her real life because of her weight. And I can tell you that it rings true with a credibility almost three times the size of my tiny friend (since Wilson is the first obese voice of her kind in pop culture, anyone not of comparable size is being confronted with some new information, no matter how empathetic they may be). She may look like an underdog, a post-modern heroine for the Glee age, but Kimmie Boubier is not actually all that relatable when you consider that, for most people, one of the loudest voices of disapproval is always their own. Kimmie is a niche heroine who represents a tragically small demographic of fat girls who don’t give a shit and just wish you wouldn’t either. And that’s why I like her.
I like her friends too. Helen-Alice and Marika sometimes play a little too wacky (they are network sitcom characters, after all) but the interdependence and potential for hurt within the show’s central three-woman friendship makes up a lot of Super Fun Night’s honesty. And I love the three boys introduced in a “group date” episode who became the “only boys [they] know”. Benji is just about the cutest little nerd this side of Sam Weir* and the cowardly dance he did with Helen-Alice for most of the season is so pathetically recognizable I couldn’t help but love them for it. Marika, for her part, has been mostly a broad source of sidekick comedy but, as the show has matured, they’ve turned easy lesbian jokes into a really touching story of self discovery. The catalyst of her lovely revelation in this week’s Valentine’s episode was, fantastically, Kendall- a character who is key in my love for this show.
A less confident creator would have made Kendall the simple villain, a roadblock to feed the protagonist’s insecurity and embody the superficiality that the main love interest will eventually overcome when he notices how superior our heroine is on the Inside. I’m not saying that Kendall doesn’t serve these purposes, but she does so while being a human. She is, in fact, very pretty, her defence mechanisms make her fairly mean, and she does represent the superficial interests of most men for at least short-term relationships. But, unlike most pretty antagonist insider girls, we see the prices Kendall pays to be so pretty (and professionally impressive and generally “perfect”). She takes none of the pleasure in food that the other characters are able to, she never gets to wear comfortable shoes, she never relaxes or lets herself be silly, she essentially tortures herself in order to live up to an ideal she feels she has to meet in order to be worthwhile. Fascinatingly, Kendall has so much more in common with your average post-modern underdog than Kimmie does but you need to look past her looks to see it. If Ryan Murphy* has you too well trained in the belief that nice hair= dark soul and you somehow managed to overlook every moment of insecurity and small kindness in early-series Kendall, you still couldn’t escape when her feelings of insufficiency became central in her relationship with Richard. It was genuinely heartbreaking to watch Kendall see Richard enjoy Kimmie’s company far more than he enjoys hers. Kendall does everything right- she’s smart, she’s pretty, she dresses well, she has perfectly practiced cocktail banter- and she can see herself falling short of this woman who doesn’t try nearly as hard. There’s nothing quite as painful as having nothing to blame rejection on- if it’s not your clothes and it’s not your weight and it’s not your job, it must just be you. If you couldn’t sympathize with Kendall upon that realization, you’re probably better off watching Two and a Half Men, this show is for people with hearts. To me, the honesty and nuance and flat-out refreshing representation of a confident, obese woman is important, but the ability to balance that with an honest and nuanced and refreshing representation of a beautiful woman trapped by the societal standards she’s determined to achieve- that’s what makes the show really interesting.
On paper, the idea that Richard dated Kendall at all is fairly obnoxious, especially when it was an entire story arc that he clearly prefers Kimmie’s company. But, obnoxious as that is, it takes away the only-on-TV Prince Charming threat and makes Richard a believable guy. It’s not like he’s Aaron Samuels getting bullied into going steady with Regina George*; Kendall’s not exactly the short-skirted Cheerleader Taylor from the “You Belong With Me” video (nor is Kimmie the clear-cut Glasses-Wearing Taylor)*. Sure, Richard gets a kick out of Kimmie, but Kendall is an extremely good paper match and she’s hot and convenient and, absolutely, that guy would date that girl, at least short-term. Actually, the only thing I’m not buying is how very fast he came around on realizing he actually is attracted to Kimmie (keeping in mind that modern men aren’t exactly trained by pop culture to look at a fat woman and not immediately compartmentalize her away from all things romantic or sexual). Giving her another love interest was key- he never would have felt the kick in the gut without the threat of losing her- but it’s just all happened very fast. That’s a complaint I have with most of the emotional arcs of the series (more on that when we get to the issue of James) but the imminent threat of cancellation gives the writers a pretty good excuse to get the show on the road. I’d rather see Richard grapple with this now (however rushed) than never get to see any grappling at all.
Any other show and I actually wouldn’t be on board with Richard “discovering” an attraction to Kimmie. I don’t think you acquire attraction to people you already know (unless it’s a Dawson-Joey* puberty issue). But what the show sneakily did over the first half of the season is never definitively have Richard discount Kimmie romantically. From the very start of the series, Kimmie feels a sense of possibility with Richard (that’s why she bails on “Super Fun Night” in the first place- get it? It’s the premise of the show). Whether it makes sense to him yet or not, there’s chemistry there (Kimmie’s too self-aware a character to be completely off base) from the very first episode. Even the big rejection scene that makes Kimmie abandon hope and attempt to move on- she runs out on him before he can fully articulate why he’s so taken aback (that moment was a highlight of the series so far- heartbreaking and frustrating and admirable and awkward all at the same time). Honestly- despite the sad implications this stance reveals about the state of the world- I rarely support the goldenboy love interest falling for the “underdog” heroine (assuming she actually does possess societally alienating attributes as opposed to just being insecure). If I ever saw it happen in real life, maybe I would feel differently. But I literally never have (the other way around? All the time. Totally unfair). Grayson only ends up with Jane on TV, so I don’t want Grayson to end up with Jane on TV*. Sometimes this is a writing problem (the excuse is always something about “inner beauty” that throws out everything basic human psychology says about attraction in romance), often it’s a casting problem (they just went Way too generihot with the guy who plays Grayson, someone more subjectively attractive would be more plausible). Somehow, in casting exactly the right guy then writing the relationship voice with perfect synchronicity, Super Fun Night sidesteps both of these issues to the point where I not only buy it, I’m kind of rooting for it (literally, first time ever).
In the increasingly broad market of shows written and run by their female stars, it’s always interesting to track how said showrunners approach casting their own love interests. Are they self-deprecating, self-aware, self-serving? Do they cast the hottest guys in the world or do they allow us a glimpse into their own unique taste? Tina Fey, for instance, went the hottest-guy-she-could-find route with 30 Rock. Hapless, ham-loving Liz Lemon was wooed by the cartoonishly dreamy likes of Jon Hamm, Matt Damon, and James Marsden. Mindy Kaling, on the other hand, seems to be picking guys she just really digs because they’re funny and cute in a little bit of a weird way. Ed Helms as a dream date; Seth Rogen as the one that got away- an assemblage The New Yorker called “The Island of Realistically Hot Men”*. When dealing with a heroine like Kimmie Boubier, that exact phrase comes to mind. I like my onscreen couples to look possible, so I like Mindy Kaling’s seemingly random assortment of handsome but mostly brain-tastic men over Tina Fey’s strange fairytale world. For Super Fun Night, Rebel Wilson managed to find exactly the right love interests. The first is the show’s leading man, Richard, who has the task of being both a longshot and a very real possibility for Kimmie, a 300 pound woman with terrible bangs and a penchant for puffy sleeves (the curled hair and fitted red dress this week did Wonders; girl really needn’t be so absurd looking the rest of the time). Somehow, that gigantically tall order is filled by the casting of Kevin Bishop. First of all, any showrunner who casts the star of Muppet Treasure Island* to play their crush/endgame romance is automatically amazing, but, more importantly, Bishop has great chemistry with Wilson. They have a remarkable ease together onscreen and their comedic interplay is pure joy. The adorable yet somewhat heartwrenching closeness of their dynamic has been fascinating to watch, especially in how it cut poor Kendall to her core. But just as Bishop walks that line of “realistically hot” while balancing the golden boy vibe with his character’s inner Kimmie-compatible goofball, Nate Torrence is perfect casting as Kimmie’s right-now love interest James. Torrence is a really underrated romantic comedian who plays a lot of lovelorn sad sacks trapped in their own nervousness*. But James is a catch, and I love that the show let him be a genuinely fantastic option for Kimmie. He’s charming and open (and a chef!) and, here’s my favourite part, the romantic chemistry is Fantastic. The rushed nature of the sex story annoyed me a bit (why set up an interesting non-religious adult virgin then rush past her losing said virginity without telling more of a story?) but their first kiss in the kitchen was great and the magic continued through Torrence’s whole slew of episodes so far as Kimmie’s beau.
Normally I would leave it at that, a simple “the chemistry is great” would suffice, but a lot has been made about the experience of seeing fat people kiss on TV (I know, again, the world sucks). When Mike & Molly first came out, some bitchy TV commentator from some bitchy beauty magazine (I would look it up but I don’t want to read it again. Okay, fine, I looked it up*.) wrote an article about how unpleasant it is to see fat people be intimate (and she literally meant just kissing). While that’s obviously insane (and wildly offensive), I do understand (I think) the core of what she was attempting to say (though, who knows with these people, really). We don’t tend to think of larger actors as sexy so it can sometimes be jarring or strange to see them in a romantic or sexual context on screen. This is mostly because we’re all jerks and would rather watch CW drones pretend to love each other than anyone else, even “regular” actors (think about it- Grey’s Anatomy is all good but when CJ had a love interest on The West Wing it was like What?!?*). “Fat” actors are usually comedy actors so it can be strange to see them break out of that role and play a love story not for laughs (seriously, I’m now wracking my brain for overweight dramatic actors and all I’ve got is Gandolfini*). But when they’re hired specifically in a romantic context, that entire excuse goes away (related note: Mike & Molly is both terrible and inherently unsexy as a show in general, so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Melissa McCarthy’s weight that was the principal factor there). Queen Latifah, for instance, has been known to throw out some serious chemistry, in the right context, despite being a bigger actress (did anybody else see her terrible-but-great basketball rom-com co-starring Common? No? Bueller?*) and Ugly Betty always brought her romantic A game*. But oftentimes bigger actors do look somewhat awkward in on-screen romance, when we’re so used to people whose bodies fit together effortlessly. James and Kimmie somehow found that perfect technique where they just fit and, man, those are some good onscreen kisses (a feature never to be taken for granted*). I’m giving the credit to Torrence, just because I feel like he’s the key here. If Mike & Molly had anywhere near the chemistry of Kimmie & James, no one would ever have written anything about them being visually unappealing together, no matter their size. Richard and Kimmie *spoiler alert* kissed for the first time in the Valentines episode this week and I’m not yet sold that their verbal and comedic (or even emotional) chemistry translates to believable romantic chemistry, but I am still theoretically on board. I just wish it didn’t signal the impending end of James, because he’s So Great (and she plans “sexy surprises” for him that involve singing The Phantom of the Opera– which is, in fairness to Kimmie, a super sexy show).
Here’s why I wrote more than 3000 words about Super Fun Night– because you probably think it’s crazy to write 3000 words about Super Fun Night. I know I’m the only person who’s likely ever going to be inclined to write 3000 words about Super Fun Night, and I realize I’m sort of uniquely qualified to do so, so I did it. But I feel like nobody is taking this show seriously, and I’m trying to tell you that you should. I don’t know if it’s because you don’t take Rebel Wilson seriously or because the promos were So Bad or because you just don’t have any respect for sitcoms anymore (especially network sitcoms- no medium is as easy to disregard). But I need you to pay attention to Super Fun Night, because it’s doing something really cool. And, for the most part, it’s doing it really well. I think it’s important that post-modern outsider girls get to see Kimmie Boubier refusing to think of herself as an outsider. I think it’s important that people notice how ingrained a fat-prejudice modern culture has (even the characters on How I Met Your Mother throw out cruel fat comments on the regular, and they’re the good guys). I think it’s important that a female character can be as casually smart and successful as Kimmie without it even needing to be a storyline (the law comes easily to her, no need to dwell). I think it’s important that we humanize our pretty people and allow characters to be virgins beyond the age of 15 and tell coming out stories that are joyous instead of just fraught. I want to see female fans fall in love with James and male fans consider Kimmie and I want every show to have an adorable boy in glasses named Benji who is allergic to the girl he likes (okay, that one’s maybe less important). I think it’s important that we get used to fat people kissing. It’s important that we tell strong friendship stories and that we invest in relationships with tangible chemistry and real-world possibility. I know it’s just a silly ABC half-hour laugher and not that many people even think it’s all that funny. But I think it’s important, and I dedicated 3775 words to it, so I think you should at least give it a chance.
A Guide to Cultural References (on the off-chance that you missed one):
*Fat Amy: the name of Rebel Wilson’s scene-stealing character in Pitch Perfect
*Sam Weir: the principal geek in Freaks & Geeks, who grew up to be Sweets on Bones. Any John Francis Daley character would have worked.
*Ryan Murphy: the creator of Glee, a show where cheerleading uniforms and letterman jackets automatically make you a bad guy (until you’re adopted by the “weird kids”)
*Mean Girls reference, obviously.
*”You Belong With Me”: see, Cheerleader Taylor “wears short skirts” and “will never get your humour like I do” whereas Glasses-Wearing Taylor “wears t-shirts” and “is the one who makes you laugh when you know you’re about to cry” but They’re Both Played By Taylor Swift! #mindblown. But, really, it’s actually a super charming music video and you should watch it now to remind yourself of that.
*Puberty: on Dawson’s Creek, childhood friends Dawson and Joey are only really platonic at the start of the series because they’ve been friends since long before the opposite sex had any allure at all.
*Grayson & Jane: on Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva, This Guy is going to end up with our size-16 heroine and, no matter how heroically the writers have fought for 5 seasons to make that work, it’s never going to make as much sense as when she was with This Guy (with whom she fit like a chemistry-laced glove, I might add).
*Showrunner Love Interests: I won’t even get into the utter beauty of Lena Dunham’s dedication to bizarro genius Adam Driver as her character’s love interest on Girls.
*Muppet Treasure Island: it’s important to me that you watch This Video.
*Nate Torrence: overlooked and under-used in Mr. Sunshine, Hello Ladies, Studio 60 and all sorts of movies.
*Marie Claire article: definitely worse than I remembered.Wow.
*CJ’s Love Interests: Obviously this statement excludes Danny Concannon because a) realistic looking pairing and b) hella chemistry.
*Fat Dramatic Actors: The only other one that comes to mind is Gabourey Sidibe and she is way too delightful and hilarious a human to be remembered as a dramatic actress rather than comedic just because her first big role was Precious.
*Bueller: If you don’t get this reference, there’s nothing I can do for you.
*Ugly Betty: in all fairness, Betty was both played by the insanely gorgeous America Ferrera and had some of the hottest love interests ever- here’s looking at you, Christopher Gorham- so that was essentially just watching hot people make out while wearing glasses.
*On-Screen Kisses: take a moment while I mourn the fact that Colin Firth (greatest on-screen kisser ever) will likely never do another rom-com. (Just FYI, second place goes to Joseph Fiennes for Shakespeare in Love because My God!).