"I want to defend you, and then I find out you're the person who wrote it which is brilliant," Conan O'Brien told Australian comedienne Rebel Wilson at the Television Critics Association press tour on Sunday, where they were presenting Super Fun Night, her new ABC sitcom about a group of friends who try to expand their social lives. "She's absolutely, absolutely fearless."
The scene O'Brien was praising was one in which Wilson's character, a smart but awkward lawyer named Kimmie, and her friends Helen-Alice (Liza Lapira) and Marika (Lauren Ash) are being turned away from a nightclub where they've been invited by a coworker of Kimmie's on whom she has crush. "We don't need any eye broccoli clogging up the line," a bouncer played by Key & Peele's Keegan-Michael Key tells the awkwardly-dressed trio. But instead of getting discouraged, the threesome keeps trying, and trying, and trying to get in, until they're left alone and discouraged on a deserted sidewalk.
That scene, and much of the pilot, are in keeping with what Wilson says is her own taste in storylines: "I'm always pitching the saddest storylines, like, where I get punched in the face," she explained to the assembled critics. But storytelling decisions like that, or Wilson's Pitch Perfect character's tendency to refer to herself as "Fat Amy" to head off haters at the pass, raise an important question. Is it possible for out-of-the-standard-mold actresses like Wilson and Melissa McCarthy to be too defensive about the ways in which they differ from their sitcom (and romcom and action) counterparts?
McCarthy's emergence as a major star has essentially proceeded on two tracks. On Mike and Molly, which airs on CBS, which ordered, and then passed, on Super Fun Night, she plays Molly Flynn-Briggs, a teacher who meets the man who will become her husband at an Overeaters Anonymous group. A relatively antiquated sitcom, Mike and Molly plays back and forth between the idea that its main characters have self-esteem issues and want to lose weight, and rather old school humor about heavy people. But in her movie career, which has earned her more critical acclaim than her steady paycheck in TV, McCarthy's something else entirely: brash, sexual, unapologetic and adventuresome. Sometimes her joke may seem to fall into stereotype, like a sex scene in Identity Thief that seemed to laugh more at McCarthy than with her. But as in Bridesmaids, where her tough, professionally successful character has to pull Kristen Wiig's Annie out of a personal and professional rut, McCarthy's characters stand as a welcome rebuke to the Hollywood idea that there's no problem worse, or not barrier to happiness more significant, than a non-conforming body type. It's an idea that showed up in Roseanne Barr's sitcom Roseanne, too: Barr's character may not always have looked as she'd liked, but the bills her family had to pay, her rotten factory boss, and her family's problems always had their proper place in her hierarchy of needs.
The version of the Super Fun Night that was sent to critics to prepare for press tour seems designed to get out ahead of any possible cruel things viewers at home might say about Kimmie by saying them first. And though the show suggests that Kimmie's weight might not be an impossible barrier to her happiness--her skinny love interest professes to like women with "a bit of chunk"--it piles on huge social deficits onto her plate, making life even harder for her. I'd love to root for Kimmie, but the show seems determined to beat her down.
Kimmie's a competent lawyer who's just been promoted--no small feat in this economy--yet she's profoundly socially awkward. "I wasn't stalking your anything," Kimmie says to a man she's recording a video message for. "I was just looking at some of your photos. For two hours. I printed some out. Who's that girl in the lime bikini? She looked really fun. There was one picture of you kneeling down, giving her a ring. Weird." When she bungles an introduction to a lawyer she admires, Kimmie explains "I do realize I'm making a terrible first impression here. I'm not really good at first impressions. The only impression I'm good at is Mickey Mouse."--and then she pulls out the impersonation.
And it doesn't stop there. Super Fun Night loads Kimmie up with novelty light-up underwear, a tendency to sing songs from Wicked in public, and tacos in a bag as a high-water mark for a Friday night.
O'Brien defended Wilson's decisions as evidence of her developed comic sensibility, saying her characters remain likable.
"It's up to Rebel," he explained, saying he hadn't pushed for the jokes to be meaner. "She just knows what she's doing. And so she has an unerring ability to hit that balance. You sometimes cringe when you see her going through something embarrassing, but she's so winning, and she's so likeable, and you root for her so much that you're in this with her. And when she survives and when she actually achieves her goal, it's exciting."
I understand the desire to diffuse the inevitable cruel criticism that comes with being a non-small woman in public. But there's a difference between a character who is self-deprecating and one who's clueless and whose behavior makes other people uncomfortable. Part of what's funny--and uncomfortably revealing--about seeing Tina Fey or Lucille Ball take shots at themselves is that they are and were gorgeous women with real power in the entertainment industry. Anyone who would dismiss them as fat, awkward idiots is desperate need of an eye exam and a comedy transplant. McCarthy and Barr have frequently managed to flip that script on their audiences, suggesting that the inability to see beyond their bodies to their characters' sexuality, humor, and strength is a very different kind of failure of perspective.
But Super Fun Night seems complicit in the kinds of insults that get hurled at Kimmie, rather than cheerfully defiant of them in the way so much of McCarthy's work is. The underwear with the glowing hearts on it does look ridiculous, not because of what Kimmie weighs, but because they're in awful taste. Kimmie's continuing failed attempts to break into the club don't feel bold after a while; they feel pathetic. I don't want to find myself agreeing with Helen-Alice's assessment of the women's awful night out, but it's hard to find evidence to the contrary that their experiences are the absolute worst. "We went out, we got rejected, we got laughed at, and just now I saw my creepy coworker," Helen-Alice moaned after an attempt to break into the club landed them in a porn theater. Kimmie is weird, she is awkward, and the show hasn't yet found a way to make that weirdness a gutsy, charming virtue, to put the laugh back on the audience for being shallow enough to see only a woman of a certain weight.