“Starved” Serves Up Eating Disorders for Laughs, With Mixed Results

Laura Benanti as Billie

Maybe it was only a matter of time.

On Thursday, August 4th, FX will premiere a sitcom about eating disorders. The series is called Starved and it follows the lives of four New Yorkers–one of them a bisexual woman recovering from anorexia and bulimia–who are friends and fellow members of a support group.

The cast of "Starved"The foursome hangs out at a local diner, where they chat and nosh after carefully weighing their food or at least the consequences of eating it. They attend meetings for Belt Tighteners, a satirical version of a 12-step program. When each person introduces themselves and specifies the nature of their addiction (anorexia, overeating, etc.), the rest of the group trades in the traditional “Hi, so-and-so” greeting for the less supportive chorus “It’s not OK!”

Starved boldly depicts its characters’ variously disordered eating, eking out wincing humor in unfunny contexts. One man digs chocolate cake out of the garbage and eats around the Ajax he sprinkled on it as a deterrent when he first threw it away. A cop jams his nightstick into his belly to make himself throw up the Chinese takeout confiscated from a delivery man he stopped on a trumped-up moving violations charge. One of the funnier scenes takes place when one of the characters makes the mistake of insulting his colonics technician before she’s completely finished with his procedure.

While it takes guts to stomach parts of the show, not all of the humor is scatological. Much of the laughs come from the characters’ bungled relations with dates, spouses and relatives. But the first three episodes also feature gay jokes that teeter along the wispy line between in-joke and subtle slur. They’re funny at first, as long as everyone’s laughing, but they’ll leave some viewers wondering whether it was really necessary to go there…again.

In each instance, the male characters’ heterosexuality is reconfirmed by jokingly calling it into question. Despite this misguided effort to establish these guys as straight, it’s significant that three of the show’s four main characters with eating disorders are male.

The silence surrounding men with eating disorders means less targeted support for them and an even bigger helping of the usual shame. Showing them seek help upends the popular myth that eating disorders are for girls. The fact that they’re straight men challenges the slightly more enlightened belief that eating disorders are only for girls and gay boys.

For better or worse, straight men may be the audience best served by a show like Starved. It will be interesting to see whether making the only woman in the foursome bisexual is throwing a bone to that demographic. Much will depend on how her character develops in later episodes.

Billie (Laura Benanti) is described as a recovering anorexic/bulimic who is an up-and-coming singer/songwriter, and her attraction to women surfaces in the pilot episode. When one of the guys gives her a hard time for always chatting girls up on her cell phone while she’s hanging out with the gang, she explains that she loves women–the more, the better. In a later episode, the camera catches a glimpse of a woman putting her watch back on and gathering her things as she leaves Billie lying in bed, looking seemingly lonely and sad after another meaningless encounter.

In the first several episodes Billie’s love interests are only present in the periphery, on the other end of her phone calls or just out of view. It remains to be seen whether she dates a woman on camera and how that gets depicted.

At one point Billie makes an ambiguous comment, “My fans like me better gay,” then refuses to elaborate. Her gay father even asks her when she’s going to “give up the gay charade.” But he’s clearly hypercritical, going so far as to call his formerly anorexic daughter “plump” when she arrives for a visit.

The two comments might indicate that she’s only playing bi, but another possibility is that she is simply dealing with genuine bi-phobia, in addition to taking on externally imposed body image issues. An unconfirmed rumor has it that Billie settles down with a man towards the end of the season, which, if true, would make a controversial show even more controversial.

The tagline for Starved is “a shamefully funny new comedy.” The show plays for laughs (some of them tinged with guilt), which is one way to draw viewers in and get them thinking about a serious subject. There are very humorous moments and many well-turned, well-delivered lines. There is also a sad undercurrent throughout the show. These people are in pain and are often painful to watch. Humor is one of the tools they use to get through it, and the show tries to follow suit without belying the tragic element.

Some people will be outraged by the mere premise of the show while others will celebrate it as a public service. Either way, it raises awareness of a rampant disease as well as the unhealthy obsession with food and body image that’s even more widespread.

Find out more about Starved at FXNetwork.com

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