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Where everybody knows your weight
Kirstie Alley bites back in Fat Actress;Deadwood pans out
Related Links

Fat Actress' official Web site

Deadwood's official Web site

Kirstie Alley, Emmy-winning star of Cheers, has fallen off the prime-time radar in recent years, unless you count those commercials for Pier 1. For the past year or so, however, Alley has been starring in a riveting supermarket tabloid saga called "My God! Look How Fat Kirstie Alley Is!" On any given week, Alley’s amazing expanding girth has been the subject of cover stories in the Star and the Enquirer, with headlines like (I swear it) "Too Fat for Sex!"

Alley briefly tried to go the "Society has a distorted body image, not me" route in a People magazine story last summer. No coincidence that that was the theme of her best-forgotten mid-’90s NBC sit-com Veronica’s Closet, in which Alley — then merely zaftig — played a lingerie mogul who sashayed around in proudly uplifting bustiers and hip-caressing gossamer robes. But by last fall, after her butt — in white stretch pants — had been spread across the cover of the Star, Alley became the subject of another People cover story, in which she gave a soul-baring interview about her unhappiness with her weight. When asked whether she wanted to be a role model for large people, Alley (who had just signed a spokesperson deal with Jenny Craig) replied, "No. I don’t want to be the demi-goddess to fat people. I just noticed that I was fat, and now that I’ve noticed, that’s it."

Out of that dark night of the plus-size soul comes Fat Actress, Alley’s new Showtime series, which premieres at 10 p.m. this Monday, March 7. (The first episode will also premiere March 7 on the Internet at www.tv.yahoo.com; the free video will remain on Yahoo until March 12.) Created and written by Alley and Brenda Hampton (7th Heaven), Fat Actress is a Curb Your Enthusiasm–style comedy vérité. Like Larry David, Alley plays herself, with all her flaws and foibles writ large; borrowing another page from David’s book, she surrounds herself with celebrity guests including John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Kid Rock and, in a stunningly self-mocking turn, much-maligned NBC TV president Jeff Zucker. I hope Zucker doesn’t really play with a hand-held electronic game during meetings — but then, that might explain NBC’s schedule.

The premise of Fat Actress is simple: Kirstie Alley is fat. She’s so fat, nobody will hire her. She’s so fat, she vows never to have "fat sex" because she disgusts herself. She’s so fat, strangers ask her when the baby is due. ("Eleven weeks," she smiles.) Fat Actress is one long pre-emptive strike staged by Alley at her own expense, and it’s a pretty shrewd one. She has taken what might have been a personal and career disaster and used it to buy a piece of the exhibitionistic reality-TV pie, without resorting to appearing on, say, Surreal Life. By letting us see her at her most vulnerable (like the pilot-episode montage where she tries to cram gobs of flesh into pants that are too small), Alley cuts off the shock value of any further unflattering photos in the gossip tabs. She also racks up bravery points, which will be important when next year’s awards season comes around. And she flips off the industry’s double standard of what constitutes physical attractiveness. In the pilot episode, Alley is at lowest ebb, sitting in her car in her negligee, chowing down on a fast-food burger and alternately screaming and crying into the cell phone at her agent. She wants her own show, but network executives suggest that they might be more open to the idea if she were to lose some weight. Alley begs to differ. "Jason Alexander looks like a frickin’ bowling ball!" she screams. "James Gandolfini — he’s, like, the size of a whale! He’s way, way, way, way fatter than I am! . . . I am a star! I want some fries! Where are my fries?"

Fat Actress aspires to a Curb Your Enthusiasm type of taboo taunting — the first episode makes much of the theory that (as one character explains) "black men love an ample rump." And there is an astute scene in the second episode where film director McG tries to describe to Alley her role as the "forgotten" angel in his new Charlie’s Angels flick; he ends up squirming and grasping at euphemisms, unable to say the dirty word "fat." But too often, the show — which is scripted, not improvised — falls into flat, crude sit-comfoolery. In the same episode, Alley overdoses on weight-loss laxatives right before her big meeting with McG and . . . stop me if you’ve heard this one.

For every clunker like that, though, there’s a deliciously brazen moment that reminds you what a fearless clown Alley can be, and those moments make Fat Actress compulsively watchable. In the pilot episode, Alley struts down the corridors of NBC for a meeting with Jeff Zucker after her aides have told her that she looks really hot, and the camera lingers on her butt and then the stunned faces of everyone she passes. Alley works that walk, and her goofy bravado is infectious. Swinging from denial to self-loathing to abject shame (she cuts Lane Bryant tags out of her clothes and replaces them with Prada tags), she sends the message that being fat is hell, and that may not endear her to some in the size community. But her honesty will ring true with anyone who has struggled in anonymity with what Alley is going through in the public eye.

MY AVERSION TO WESTERNS kept me from the pleasures of HBO’s Deadwood for much of its first season. But watching the first 12 episodes in rerun (it’s also just been released on DVD), I was finally willing to see the gold flashing through the dirt. Deadwood, which begins its second season this Sunday at 9 p.m., is the Wild West as Shakespeare — or David Mamet — might have seen it. Creator David Milch (NYPD Blue) has brought a teeming, brutal, majestic swath of history to life and swaddled it in richly flowing language and blunt realism.

The series is set in 1877 in the mining camp of Deadwood, a gold-rich patch of land just outside but not officially part of the Dakota Territory and thus not subject to American law. Wild Bill Hickok (played by Keith Carradine) was an original cast member before that unfortunate card game. A boozy Calamity Jane (Robin Wiegert) is also on hand. There are hookers with hearts of gold, Chinese immigrant laborers, drug addicts, outlaws, charlatans, preachers, entrepreneurs, newspapermen, and a doctor who has lost faith in his abilities after witnessing battlefield carnage in the Civil War. Almost theatrical in its staging, Deadwood is a gorgeous reinvention of the TV Western; it’s so grandly, scummily verbose and dramatic, it reminds you why they used to call Westerns "horse operas."

The second season begins with the two-part episode (the second part airs March 13) "A Lie Agreed Upon," in which the march of progress thumps ever closer to the camp. Telephone wires are going up; capitalism continues to thrive, as the camp’s third bordello opens up shop. And the political machinations of the government directed at annexing the camp set off power struggles among the founders and spark fears that outsiders will be sent in to govern the place. At the center of this maelstrom are the show’s two main characters, Al Swearengen (the great Ian McShane), foul-mouthed and foul-tempered owner of the Gem Saloon and the camp’s de facto boss and chief bully, and Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a straight-backed former Montana lawman who has been anointed by Swearengen as the camp’s sheriff. Swearengen has no faith in human nature and Bullock has only a little, but they are essentially cut from the same pragmatic cloth.

In the season opener, Bullock must deal with the unexpectedly early arrival in camp of his wife and son, who are really his dead brother’s wife and son — Bullock did the chivalrous thing. Their arrival means that Bullock, who’s been having a torrid affair with wealthy widow Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), has some soul searching to do. Swearengen, meanwhile, is in a fouler temper than usual (he’s beset by a painful prostate problem), and he expresses his contempt for the changes afoot in Deadwood with even more of his customary profanity.

Swearengen speaks in inebriated yet eloquent soliloquies, every third word being "fuck" or "cocksucker." Toward the end of last season, he had an unforgettable scene where he talks to the whore fellating him but he’s really talking to himself, trying to make sense of how he came to be the sort of man who would be talking to himself, drunk, with several murders on his conscience, in bed in a mining camp while a whore fellates him. He had a wrenching childhood memory of being abandoned by his mother at a boys’ orphanage: "My fucking mother dropped me the fuck off there with seven dollars and 60-some-odd fucking cents on her way to sucking cock in Georgia and I didn’t get to count the fucking cents before the fucking door opened and there was Mrs. Fat Ass Fucking Anderson. . . . I had to give her seven dollars and 60-odd fucking cents that my mother shoved in my fucking hand before she hammered one two three four times on the fucking door and scurried off down Euclid Avenue. . . . " The mournful-eyed, grizzled grandeur of McShane’s performance is something to behold. Swearengen represents the raw, animal, self-preservation impulse that made America what it is today, under the civilized veneer.

Issue Date: March 4 - 10, 2005
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