Viewers don’t figure to be nearly as pleased with Eric Schaeffer’s new FX series as the writer-producer-director-star seems to be. Although the basic cabler made its name in drama by pushing boundaries, watching a guy induce vomiting isn’t exactly fun, and the level of self-absorption in these characters — roughly mirroring Denis Leary’s troubled firefighter in the net’s “Rescue Me” — would be more bearable if they were saving lives, not binge eating coffee cake. Steve Martin once said that comedy isn’t pretty, but it’s hard to remember one being a whole lot uglier.
Schaeffer has made something of a name for himself in independent film and returns to TV (anyone remember his Fox series “Too Something” a decade ago?) with what he describes as a semi-autobiographical concept, in which he plays Sam, a neurotic commodities broker still wrestling with anorexia and compulsive overeating.
Sam’s support system — with whom he attends meetings at an abusive self-help group called “Belttighteners” — includes the bisexual anorexic/bulimic Billie (Laura Benanti); bulimic Adam (Sterling K. Brown), a New York cop; and compulsive overeater Dan (Del Pentecost), who would also rather watch football than sleep with his wife.
Through three episodes, the primary focus largely zeroes in on Sam’s obsessive adventures in dating, which find him easily corralling willing bed partners (a recurring element in Schaeffer’s films) but unable to sustain a relationship. Adam, meanwhile, is so obsessive he literally rousts citizens to confiscate their food, while Dan gets involved with a dominatrix as a kind-of research project.
Pushing the envelope in terms of standards is all well and good, assuming that series earn the right to do so, and “Starved” simply doesn’t, just as its stabs at poignancy feel unconvincing and forced. In a few vulgar moments Schaeffer achieves a modicum of shock value (especially in a second-episode gag involving a high colonic), but from an emotional standpoint there’s seldom a truthful note.
These observations don’t even bother to quibble, by the way, with the fact that the central characters consist of three adult guys, without any reference in these initial episodes to teenage girls and younger women, who are far more likely to suffer from eating disorders.
Then again, the idea of a self-help organization whose leader (Jackie Hoffman) actively insults those attending — as the rest of the group chants, “It’s not OK!” — is indicative of the through-the-looking-glass world that Schaeffer has created, one where women except for Benanti’s character are little more than props for him to seduce and abandon. And while that might have worked in reverse for “Sex and the City,” “Puking and the City” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
In that respect, the Belttighteners have a point: It’s not OK.