The pilot for TV2's Tuesday-night drama This Is Us shocked a lot of viewers when it revealed how the lives of its ensemble cast of characters intersect. But the tearjerking plot twist isn't the only thing that sets the drama apart.
One of the show's main characters is Kate (Chrissy Metz), a 36-year-old woman confronting an ongoing struggle with her weight. In the pilot, we see her attend a weight-loss support group and go to extreme lengths to stop herself from eating junk food. But we also see her go on a date with a sweet guy who makes her laugh and makes it clear he's attracted to her.
Television hasn't had the best track record with overweight female characters, who have typically been the subject of punchlines. Recent efforts, including the late CBS sitcom Mike and Molly, Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva and the short-lived ABC Family drama Huge took a step in the right direction, but tended to focus on the fact that a lead character was overweight.
There is similar criticism when it comes to Kate, whose storyline so far revolves around her desire to "lose the weight." (Salon's Melanie McFarland called her storyline "distressingly awash with problematic messages about food and fat shame.") But Kate is one of several characters with dynamic stories, and there is also something to be said about seeing a plus-size woman court a genuine love interest in a non-comedic way.
Last year, Empire got people talking when one episode opened with a steamy love scene between Lyon family confidant Becky (Gabby Sidibe) and her slimmer paramour, rapper J Poppa (Mo McRae). The somewhat unexpected scene provoked both praise and ridicule, which Sidibe addressed in an recap for EW.com:
"I, a plus sized, dark-skinned woman, had a love scene on primetime television. I had the most fun ever filming that scene even though I was nervous. But I felt sexy and beautiful and I felt like I was doing a good job. I'm very proud of the work we all did to make that scene a great opening for the episode. I keep hearing that people are 'hating' on it. I'm not sure how anyone could hate on love but that's OK. You may have your memes."
To some extent, the scene - which also spurred the hash tag #MyFatSexStory - was refreshing. Sex scenes are not uncommon on the Fox drama. And as prone as Hollywood is to pairing schlubby men with beautiful, put-together women, it's far less common to see a physically fit man relish a tryst with an overweight woman (let alone, one who exudes confidence). On the other hand, it's hard to believe that Empire, a show that seems intent on delivering one over-the-top scene after another, was aiming for anything deeper than shock value.
In 2014, Louis C.K.'s FX dramedy Louie got attention for an episode (titled So Did the Fat Lady) that offered some insight into dating as an overweight woman, or "the fat girl," as a love interest (played by Sarah Baker) for the title character called it in a nearly seven-minute speech. The episode (written by C.K.) was widely praised, though some critics deemed elements of the speech condescending.
In a piece for Vulture, Danielle Henderson wrote that she liked the episode until the last few minutes of the speech. "I'm uncomfortable because I'm not sure if C.K. is using this monologue to reveal something about himself, or if he's actually trying to get inside the heads of fat women and take a stand on our behalf." Henderson continued:
"To me, the entire monologue was heavy-handed and aimless, relying too much on tropes of fat girl-ness (we can't tell anyone how bad it sucks, but all we want to do is scream at men about how bad it sucks) instead of the usual curiosity into the weird complexity of the human condition that we've come to expect from Louie. This didn't feel like a joke - it felt like a plea, a plea I'm not sure he's qualified to make. I was bothered that he took this previously badass woman ... and turned her into a pathetic showcase of hidden weaknesses just looking for the right man to unleash her unhappiness upon. The real kicker is when after all of her pleading, she says 'I don't need a boyfriend or husband, I just want to hold hands with a nice guy.'"
This Is Us
has an opportunity to shift the dating conversation through Kate's relationship with Toby, who she meets at her weight-loss support group. While the pilot is fairly one-note when it comes to Kate's issues, her resolve to change her life indicates that we could see character exploration that isn't tied to a love interest. In this week's episode, Kate told Toby that her lifelong weight struggle was "at the core" of who she is: "It's always going to be about the weight for me ... It's been my story ever since I was a little girl, and every moment that I'm not thinking about it, I'm thinking about it."
But the NBC drama can still ensure that Kate's story evolves beyond her efforts to lose weight. That may happen with impending changes for Kate and her twin brother, Kevin, whose own story took a significant turn in this week's episode. There is nothing wrong with having a very real, common struggle be a part of Kate's story, but it should not be the entirety of it.