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THE SMALL SCREEN THINKS BIG

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Call it the summer of plus-size love.

While everything else in the culture and on television these days seems to be getting downsized, now comes a series of shows featuring fuller-size contestants and characters. More importantly, in a couple of cases, the heavyweight folks are being treated with love rather than derision - a break from the usual depiction accorded such character types in prime time.

Last week, the Oxygen channel premiered Dance Your Ass Off, a weekly series described by host Marissa Jaret Winokur as "TV's first ever dance-weight loss competition."

A cross between NBC's long-running Biggest Loser, now in its seventh season, and Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, the cable series was the most-watched premiere in Oxygen history - and it scored highest among young women, an audience most attractive to advertisers.

Last week also brought the start of Season 2 of Ruby, the Style Network's reality series about Savannah, Ga., native Ruby Gettinger's weight-loss journey. Last season, Gettinger, who started the series at 500 pounds, lost more than 100 pounds, and is living a much healthier lifestyle with more exercise and less need for multiple diabetes medications.

The show, which so far has been done with considerable sensitivity, has been good for the cable channel as well - doing record ratings for Style with its debut audience of more than half a million viewers in November.

And tonight, the first scripted series of the summer featuring a plus-sized character arrives as Lifetime unveils Drop Dead Diva starring Broadway performer Brooke Elliott (Wicked).

The clever comic premise finds a not-very-bright, self-absorbed model dying in an auto accident and returning to Earth in the plus-sized body of a super-smart attorney played by Elliott. In the pilot, at least, brains and education are celebrated over traditional media notions of stick-thin beauty. Here's a series that has a strong cast, great writing and what could prove to be an enlightened exploration of body and self-image.

Perhaps the most intriguing entry of all is scheduled to arrive July 28, when Fox presents the reality TV series More to Love. According to Mike Darnell, president of alternative programming at Fox, the show is based on the premise that millions of viewers are tired of looking at magazine-cover beautiful young people fall in love - and want instead to look at dating show contestants who look more like themselves. The idea is to replace the beautifully sculpted contestants of shows like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette with an overweight guy looking for a plus-sized woman to love.

Darnell is a whiz at creating new reality TV concepts and not only making ratings magic with them, but also making it sound as if the series are going to make the world a better place. The results are sometimes more along the lines of his Joe Millionaire creation, a failed dating series that showed greed to be at least as strong an aphrodisiac as love.

But it is fascinating to see Darnell probe social reality and try to exploit the national psyche.

"This is the first dating competition show in television history that reflects what most real single men and women look like, which makes it instantly relatable to the vast majority of people in the dating pool," Darnell said in announcing the series.

"This is a dating show that sends the right message about embracing and loving yourself no matter your shape or size," added executive producer Mike Fleiss, creator of TV's most successful reality dating competition, The Bachelor. "When you are comfortable with your own body, you can really allow yourself to be open to the possibility of finding the right person to love."

Producer Scott Sternberg, whose game show and reality TV resume stretches back to Love Connection, says the series was unofficially known in Hollywood as The Fatchelor before Fox decided on its current name: "Instead of losing weight, they're going to try to find love," Sternberg says. "So, I guess the transformational part is anybody can find a date - or a mate."

With reality shows, Sternberg says, "You start with transformation. That's what everybody is looking for: transformational stories. That's the end game when it comes to these kinds of shows."

With plus-sized contestants and characters, their bodies are usually the very sites of transformation. That's as straightforward a visual statement of the theme as one can get - making it a perfect topic for television, which speaks primarily in images rather than words. Check out the before-and-after galleries at the Web sites for shows like The Biggest Loser.

But some analysts believe there is more than just physical transformation going on behind the scenes with the number and popularity of shows featuring full-bodied characters this summer. Those factors range from American lifestyles and the economy, to the rise of targeted channels that can speak to selective audiences based on such factors as gender.

"Certainly, obesity is more of a problem than it has ever been in this country," says, Dr. Michael Bilof, a bariatric surgeon who runs Garden State Bariatrics & Wellness Center in New Jersey. "So, a lot of people grapple with the issue even if they aren't at the extreme levels that the characters on these TV shows are."

Sally Ann Salsano, who is an executive producer on both Dance Your Ass Off and More to Love, notes the same growing audience as well as a mounting concern about health.

"If you watch the news, you see everyone always talking about health lately and how America's just getting fatter and fatter," Salsano says. "As a country, obesity is such a big issue. It's in every school, in every household. Now, the success of Biggest Loser hasn't hurt us, of course. ... But I definitely think it's [the appearance of these shows] more a trend of what's happening in the country."

And while tanking real estate values and widespread loss of jobs has hurt reality TV shows that deal in transforming your home (Extreme Makeover) or your career (The Apprentice), people can still transform their bodies - no matter how bad the economy might get.

But if fat is the "before," and trim is the happily ever "after,' Hollywood is still working with the same stereotypes that can be traced back to its earliest days of TV when being overweight was equated with lower social class status. (Think of the 1950s series T he Honeymooners, in which Jackie Gleason played an overweight, angry, borderline out-of-control bus driver living in a tenement apartment with his long-suffering wife.)

"The reality shows to me are so two-dimensional," says Josh Berman, creator and executive producer of Drop Dead Di va. "The message of reality shows to me still feels like: Fat is bad, skinny is good."

In fairness, from Biggest Loser to Ruby and Dance Your Ass Off, a rhetoric of health is used on-air so that overweight is unhealthy and therefore bad, whereas trim is good because it's healthy. And while the same underlying good-bad paradigm might be in place, contestants, characters and real people such as Ruby are treated with some sensitivity in several of the new shows. You are not, for example, going to find Winokur mocking a plus-sized contestant on Dance Your Ass Off.

Nor are you likely to see women denigrated on Oxygen and Lifetime, cable channels with a history of speaking to women first and foremost, where two of the new series appear.

In the end, you don't undo 60 years of TV prime-time stereotypes overnight. Progress is made in baby steps in the land of mainstream corporate TV.

"With Dance and More to Love, they're saying, 'No matter who you are, you deserve to be on TV.' Neither of the casts of these shows would you ever see on, like, Big Brother or Survivor. They're always ex-beauty-queens, ex-this, ex-that," Salsano says.

"But with More to Love, these girls aren't there trying to lose weight. They're just saying, 'Look, I'm a little bit bigger, but I'm lonely and I still want to be in love and find somebody. Why can I not have a good life just because I'm overweight? Especially when everyone at home watching these shows looks just like the people trying to find love."

If Salsano wants her reality TV to actually mirror the real life of its audience in a small way, Berman wants his fictional characters to expand TV's notion of beauty just a little.

"I wanted to write a show that was first of all entertaining, but also explored beauty and weight and how they converged - I wanted to try and redefine the paradigm of what is beauty on television," Berman says.

"I've worked on all these shows starting with CSI and Bones where our leads are these beautiful, thin women. And to get to write for a normal-sized woman, a healthy-sized woman who is beautiful has really been fantastic for me. It's something different. We haven't seen that on TV, and it's a real shame."

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