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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

Heavy Mettle

By Belinda Acosta

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  Comedian Margaret Cho is making a comeback after nearly dropping out of sight following the cancellation of her 1994 ABC comedy, All-American Girl. Unfortunately, Cho is not returning to television, at least not in a sitcom. Instead, she was a recent subject on an E! True Hollywood Story episode, in which she recounted her success as a stand-up comedian, followed by the sitcom that very nearly cost her life.

Told by network execs that there was "a problem with the fullness of her face," Cho was placed on a crash diet and exercise regimen that caused her to lose 30 pounds in two weeks and landed her in the hospital with kidney failure. Add to this the pressure of being the first Asian-American to star in a television series, complaints from Korean groups that the show was not an honest portrayal of Koreans, and complaints that Cho wasn't "Korean enough" (the network hired a consultant to train her to be more Korean), it's no wonder the then-25-year-old actress went into a tailspin.

Cho tells her story with stark honesty -- and gut-busting humor -- in her one-woman show, I'm The One That I Want. Because Cho's story is told in past tense, it's easy to dismiss her experience as something that came and went and is no longer of consequence. But placed in context with the recent complaints by Latino and African-American organizations that network prime time lacks diversity, Cho's story illustrates, from a first-person perspective, just how brutal the industry can be when a very narrow template is used in programming and subsequent casting. Add to that the fact that Cho was put through the wringer for her appearance -- specifically her weight, something not likely to occur to her male counterparts. Cho points out in her one-woman show that when All-American Girl was canceled, it was replaced with The Drew Carey Show "because he's so skinny." 'Nuff said.

It only takes a quick scan of the dial to see quite clearly that not only is white right, but thin is in, particularly among women. But it's a certain type of thinness. One that is difficult, if not impossible, for certain body types to attain. Heavier women are typically relegated to the following roles: older mothers or aunts, the sad or dangerous (i.e. unfeminine) outsider, or the loyal best friend.

Matronly mother types run the gamut from Aunt Bea in The Andy Griffith Show to Tyne Daly's mother figure in Judging Amy (CBS). The unfeminine outsider usually appears in the guise of the butch, man-eating proto-lesbian. The ridiculously brash Mimi in The Drew Carey Show fits this profile, except she prefers men -- even if it is the transvestite brother of Carey's lead character.

Last season's Ally McBeal featured a recurring character who fit the profile to a T, going that extra step further by actually proclaiming she was a lesbian. Network prime time seems to fancy lesbians of the barking and growling type. Anything more discreet in behavior -- in other words, a lesbian who seems a lot like you or me -- is killed off (think Ellen DeGeneres).

One of the earliest fat friend models comes in the form of Ethel Mertz, played by Vivian Vance, on I Love Lucy. Vance's contract actually required her to weigh 10 to 15 pounds more than the show's star, Lucille Ball. Contemporary examples include Kathy Najimy on Veronica's Closet (NBC) and several pudgy, anxious teen females on new programs, including Once and Again (ABC) and Popular (The WB), to name two.

Ally McBeal confidante and roommate Renée Radick looks absolutely corpulent next to the rail-thin Calista Flockhart. But in an interesting turn, Radick is portrayed as a sexual being, her roundness tied to a ripe sexuality that poor Ally is just not able to capture, let alone sustain.

I was going to include Camryn Manheim of The Practice as one of the few larger women not relegated to the land of bitter lonelyhearts or dreamy-eyed, pretty-girl wannabes. That is, until I saw the season premiere of The Practice, which linked her (if only temporarily) to that habit-wearing, severed-head-toting oddball George Vogelman (Michael Monks).

African-Americans and Latinos have been shown to be more accepting of larger-sized women, so I thought I was in for a treat when I tuned in to an episode of The Parkers on UPN. Although the mainstream press seems hesitant to trash this show, I have no problem. Featuring large-size actresses Mo'Nique and Countess Vaughn as mother and daughter, the show's "larger than life -- energy and comedy," according to the show's promoters, is parallel to the buffoonish comedy of Amos 'n' Andy of the 1950s. The disturbing thing is that its silly humor is uncomfortably entertaining. Of course, Amos 'n' Andy enjoyed a successful run on CBS for many years and later in syndication. That is, until the show was sold to two African nations, Kenya and Western Nigeria. Soon thereafter, the Kenyan government banned the program, and attempts to revitalize the program in the United States were met with protests. Still, The Parkers seems to be doing fine, capturing a share of the African-American audience the regular networks are losing. But for the life of me, I don't know why.


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