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Kirstie Alley is 'Fat Actress'
Economies of scale
by Mark Anderson

recent one-panel New Yorker cartoon shows three middle-aged men parked at a bar as daylight seeps in through a window.

Weighty matters: Kirstie Alley's new show skewers stereotypes along with herself.

One guy looks up from his drink to surmise: "Why doesn't Ken Burns make a documentary about this?"

A simple inference is that we're beyond bored with the current era of reality television and ready to turn things back to professionals.

Enter Kirstie Alley.

"Fat Actress," Alley's new 30-minute series on Showtime, uses her own over-sized reality as a semi-autobiographical backdrop for skewering tons of stereotypes – and herself.

Art imitates life imitating art imitating life when a former TV superstar gains 60-some pounds and can't get a job except to pitch Jenny Craig.

The first episode quickly zeroes in on a primary target. Alley, in her car, chows down on a huge hamburger while kvetching on the cell to her agent.

"Is it so much to ask if I have my own television show again," she pleads, "since that's what I do for a living?"

The agent informs her that she'll need to lose some weight.

"John Goodman's got his own show and Jason Alexander looks like a friggin' bowling ball," she replies. "And how about James Gandolfini? He's, like, the size of a whale. He's way, way, way fatter than I am."

The agent gets Alley a meeting with NBC by promising that the weight has already been lost. Soon three glad-handing execs are telling Alley she looks great as they ply her with vague network promises.

Alley is barely out of earshot before things take a telling turn.

"What the fuck was that?" says head of NBC Jeff Zucker, playing himself. "Did you see how huge she is? She's fatter than ever."

Is it in the stars?: Travolta plays the Good Samaritan neighbor.

The first episode, obviously over the top by design, covers a lot of ground.

John Travolta plays himself, the Good Samaritan neighbor. Michael McDonald from "Mad TV" is the agent. The rest of the supporting cast is decent and upcoming guests include Carmen Electra, Connie Stevens and Kid Rock.

But really, it's all about Alley as she fearlessly explores dating (winding up in bed with a black NBC executive who thinks she's "bootylicious") and dieting (ending the opening show by contemplating, then deciding against, creative bulimia) all with a refreshing feel for self-deprecation.

Too bad the first episode isn't very funny.

But at least it offers potential. Alley's wise-ass personality can be grating and whiny, but she's ultimately likeable and convincing. And the show, by definition, has set itself on an interesting, uncharted course. It's a bloated exercise on the economies of scale.

Wide-screen TV: potential and an uncharted course.

It seems even more promising when compared to what competes for airtime: a vacuous parade of contests and freak shows – often semi-scripted and re-shot on the sly for dramatic purposes and almighty ratings – that routinely passes itself off as "reality."

The premium channel unscrambled the show's premier episode for anyone with cable to see. With no commercials, each episode is a full half hour. And, since it's Showtime, the f-word and adult situations run rampant.

Which all somehow brings to mind the lamest party I ever was at.

Prior to each Thanksgiving in the '80s, a bunch of college friends and a pre-screened handful of newly acquired acquaintances – maybe two dozen in all – would pick a Saturday to squeeze into the same guy's tiny basement, then sit down to potluck turkey dinner.

It always was great and hilarious noon-until-after-midnight fun.

Then came the year the gang's auteur brought his video camera – not a common occurrence back in the day. Maybe it was just an off year for the party. Maybe it was the camera's invasion. Maybe a combination of reasons made that year's party an unprecedented dud.

Better off bowling: The first episode of "Fat Actress" isn't very funny.

That by itself wouldn't have been so bad.

The real problem was that by the time evening rolled around, sure enough, there we all were – nodding off and watching ourselves on television, reliving the same lame party.

Which hammered home an obvious truth that sticks to this day: Just because something is on TV doesn't make it good.

We'd have been better off going bowling.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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