By Ray Richmond
Bottom line: A superb comedy about people with eating disorders that leaves us with plenty of food for thought.
10-10:30 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 4
So imagine if Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine of "Seinfeld" were really, really screwed up. No, wait, they were screwed up. Scratch that. OK, so what if they all had eating disorders? They would probably look something like the characters on "Starved," FX's bold, brash, wrenchingly personal and divertingly clever new original series that signals that the lean times are over for the network in terms of comedy (pun intended). I use the "Seinfeld" reference not to indicate that the show is derivative, merely to imply that it's impossible to avoid comparisons when your show centers on three guys and a gal in their 30s who pal around Manhattan and also features a single-word title that begins with an "s" and ends with a "d." That said, the "Starved" characters out-neurotic that other quartet by a fairly comfortable margin, though that doesn't necessarily make them any less real. Probably more so, actually.
If "Seinfeld" was a show about nothing, "Starved" is a show about eating nothing. It's exceptionally dark and occasionally outrageous. But the groundswell of protest against the program from eating disorder organizations is misguided. This comedy neither denigrates nor satirizes the anti-food-abuse movement so much as it examines -- sometimes poignantly, often hilariously -- the heartache and despair of flawed human beings struggling to right their listing emotional ship. Eating issues are merely the means into the heads of our foodsome foursome who work hard to get a grip on something more tangible than a cheeseburger.
Created, written, executive produced (in tandem with Dan Pasternack) and directed by Eric Schaeffer, "Starved" also finds Schaeffer as one of the four primary stars. He's Sam, your basic neurotic commitment-phobe fighting to recover from anorexia and compulsive overeating. He's the kind of guy who gets on the bathroom scale four times in a two-minute period. He hangs around with fellow "Belt-tighteners" support members Billie (Laura Benanti), a bisexual recovering anorexic-bulimic; Adam (Sterling K. Brown), a bulimic NYPD cop who uses his position to intercept free food from delivery men; and Dan (Del Pentecost), an overweight compulsive overeater and novelist. They're all addicts, slaves to their palates as much as a junkie is to his heroin fix.
The pilot is easily the darkest of the three episodes supplied for review, making it something of an early chore to embrace the four leads in particular. Sam busies himself romancing a sweet young woman he met on a subway whom he uses to indulge a secret shoe fetish. That's when he isn't pulling mini chocolate cakes that he's coated in cleanser from the trash and eating them, Ajax residue and all. Billie is hard-edged and embittered, Adam intense and tortured, Dan weak-willed and consumed with instant gratification. Their demons will continue to rear their ugly heads in Episodes 2 and 3, but we'll see their fragile psyches on clearer display as well, helping involve us more in their lives.
Schaeffer, as the show's sole writer and director, does a brilliant job of capturing the self-hate, emptiness and despair that drive the need to abuse something (booze, drugs, sex, food or whatever). The fact that the obsessive behavior those feelings inspire goes hand in hand with broad comedy is a no-brainer. That Schaeffer wrote for himself the show's most outwardly contemptible jerk of a character speaks no doubt to his own issues, and indeed, he and his three primary co-stars are all said to have had past problems themselves dealing with food. But again, black as the material can be, it's packed with comedic flair relatable to the masses far beyond 12-step programs. Indeed, there is a scene at the end of Episode 2 involving Sam and colon cleansing that's nothing short of classic.
"Starved" is the kind of brave comedy rarely seen in TV or anyplace else. It's less about eating disorders than it is the people who battle them, never going in for gimmickry at the expense of its characters and the uniformly superb performances of the actors who portray them. As such, the show pushes FX further forward in its ongoing quest to out-HBO HBO in the quality arena.