From the opening shot of Kirstie Alley writhing and sobbing on her bathroom floor, there’s something so profoundly uncomfortable about “Fat Actress” as to prove not every celebrity life is ripe for “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-type satire. With virtually every joke hinging on the title’s one-note gag, it’s less about laughing with or at the star than feeling slightly embarrassed, despite her willingness to be the butt of the humor. There’s certainly much to say about the obsession with thinness and beauty, which should earn Showtime some much-coveted media attention. People liking the show, alas, is another matter.
Indeed, the spate of not-quite-reality celebrity-coms that have surfaced since “Curb” for the most part only heighten admiration for the HBO show’s deft balancing act as well as the pain of watching silliness topple into witlessness.
Alley plays a version of herself, but it’s such an unflattering version it’s hard to come away wanting to know the real her, much less rooting for this TV incarnation. Yes, she’s overweight and people stare rudely when she walks by, but beyond the title nothing but shrillness and whining define her character.
Filled with the obligatory celebrity cameos, John Travolta pops in during the premiere, allowing Alley — facing career limbo because of her weight — to plead with him to do “Look Who’s Talking 4.” She rails against Hollywood’s unfairness, noting that Jason Alexander “looks like a friggin’ bowling ball” and James Gandolfino (her error, not mine) is way fatter than she is.
Flanked by an assistant (Bryan Callen) and stylist (Rachael Harris) there to reinforce her lunacy, Alley presses her agent, Sam Rascal (like former William Morris hotshot Sam Haskell — get it?), to secure her a TV show, wounded by his proposal to pitch Jenny Craig ads. So he sets up a meeting at NBC, where NBC TV Group prexy Jeff Zucker reveals better-than-average executive acting chops — somewhere between Tartikoff and Moonves — playing with his Game Boy during meetings and protesting to Alley’s agent, “She is so fat!”
The program teeters toward offensive when Alley and her posse decide the only way she can get laid is to find an African-American guy, the assumption being that black men like fat women. This leads to an awkward “9½ Weeks” spoof with Mark Curry, demonstrating how being provocative for its own sake can go wrong.
Nor does the second episode — another star-studded affair, with cameos by Kid Rock and Melissa Gilbert — improve matters. Again, the humor quotient seldom rises above belt level, including an extended sequence in which Alley keeps rushing to the bathroom because her diet guru (played by Travolta’s wife, Kelly Preston) has essentially convinced her to poison herself.
In short, “Fat Actress” is one of those catchy monikers in search of a show, on a pay network seeking identity as well as the kind of signature franchises — in terms of media interest and prestige — that will help it escape HBO’s shadow. (Rather cleverly, the premiere will follow Morgan Spurlock’s documentary “Super Size Me.”)
That program might be out there somewhere, and a show this loud and conceptually brash will doubtless inspire curiosity, at least initially. As for the prestige part, the chances of such an overcooked comedy garnering that can be boiled down to two — slim, and fat.