Here's the conceit of Mike & Molly, which debuts tonight on CBS: Mike and Molly are two singles—she's a teacher and he's a cop—who begin dating after they meet at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. Played by Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy, respectively, Mike & Molly is the latest in a string of TV series featuring overweight actors and characters in leading roles. Huge premiered over the summer. Starring Hairspray's Nikki Blonsky, the show is a teen drama set at a fat camp. Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva has been a breakout success for the network, featuring Brooke Elliot as a thin girl who dies and comes back to life in the body of a fat lawyer. Now critics are calling Mike & Molly a "beacon of hope" for the portrayal of overweight people on TV. No longer are these characters relegated to fat best friend status, but they are taking center stage—which should be a good thing.
Yet while we're seeing a surge in shows starring overweight actors, in each of these series the character's weight is not only the central plot point, but the reason for the show to exist. Is this trend really a positive thing?
According to the American Journal of Public Health, only 1 out of every 10 female characters and less than a quarter of male characters on TV were overweight—less than half the percentages of the actual American population that is overweight and obese. While Mike & Molly and these other series do broaden the landscape of the body types featured on TV, they're not making that much of an impact on this trend. Bradley S. Greenberg, one of the study's authors, points out, "I'm not sure if we've identified one handful or two handfuls of these new overweight characters, but I don't think it goes much beyond that."
MORE ON FALL TV:
Kevin Fallon: 12 TV Shows You're Not Watching (But Should)
Kevin Fallon: 5 Things You Need to Know Before the 'Glee' Premiere
Richard Drew: Why Every Reality TV Show Has (Almost) the Same Plot
Furthermore, the study showed that less than 10 percent of overweight male characters had dating lives or talked about sexual activity, and heavier female characters engaged in significantly fewer physical displays of affection than thinner counterparts. In that regard (and in the footsteps of canceled series King of Queens and Ugly Betty), Mike & Molly and these other shows are refreshing. As Mary McNamara writes in the LA Times, these shows remember that "those with high body fat indexes also have jobs and love lives." Considering how jarringly low the number of romantic liaisons was among overweight characters in Greenberg's survey, the fact that Mike and Molly are dating, that Blonsky's character on Huge has crushes, and Drop Dead Diva cycles romantic partners for its lead is a step in the right direction. But their dating lives aren't unrelated to their weight issues—they are completely intertwined. If we're really looking for an uplifting portrayal of overweight people in fictional television shows (reality TV is a whole other ball game), shouldn't we strive for a series starring a heavy actor without their weight being the central preoccupation?