When Winnie Holzman created arguably the best teen drama ever, My So-Called Life, her 24-year-old daughter, Savannah Dooley, was only 8 years old. But now that both of them have successfully passed through adolescence, the two are collaborating on a new ABC Family drama, Huge, which tells the story of teenagers struggling at a weight-loss camp. (The show — which premieres tonight at 9 on ABC Family — is based on a book, as well as produced by Alloy Entertainment, the company behind Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars.) While traditionally, “fat camp” has been just a TV and movie setting for mean smuggled-candy-bar jokes, Huge takes a more serious tone: Hairspray’s Nikki Blonksy stars as Will, a sarcastic advocate for body acceptance, who was forced to go to the camp by her parents. We talked to the mother-daughter team about how they’re trying to squash the usual fat-character stereotypes, and the key way in which Huge feels like My So-Called Life.
What made you want to work on a show about weight-loss camp?
Winnie: My daughter.
Savannah: For my whole life, Winnie and I have often watched portrayals of chubby girls on TV and movies and felt really frustrated by the portrayal. We would say to each other, “Oh my God, of course she just has to listen, and give advice, and have a little crack about how fat she is.” As two people who throughout our lives have struggled with body image for ourselves, we’ve always been really attuned to how that’s been reflected in the media. In doing this, we wanted to create the complicated look at body image and weight that we had always wanted to see.
What is your writing process like, as a mother and daughter?
W: Well, it’s not like there’s a pamphlet we could refer to. [Laughs.]
S: Here’s where it gets a little sitcom-y: I had written a TV movie of Huge with Robin Schiff (10 Things I Hate About You). ABC wanted to make it into a series, but Robin was no longer available to helm the series. It ended up being Winnie. My lease was up on my apartment and my roommate was moving out, so I was like, “I’m just going to move in with Winnie, because I am going to be working with her.” This job is 24 hours a day. There is not a time when I have been awake, when I have not been working on this job. I called her last night …
W: At one in the morning.
S: … freaking out, because I realized that there were some last-minute revisions I needed to make to scenes that I thought were shooting next week, but now are shooting tomorrow. I’m like, I don’t even need your help, just come over and hug me, so I can get through this.
Are there certain characters that you each write more of?
W: Savannah’s been doing the kids much more than me.
S: I tend to feel a little lost writing scenes for the adults. Because of my age, I have a self-consciousness about trying to write like a grown-up.
The fact that the adults are sympathetic and full characters — which is not always the case in shows directed at teenagers — reminded me of My So-Called Life.
W: I feel pretty strongly about that. I don’t like it when certain characters are treated like they are not really real, like they are not really human beings: This is who the real people get to be, and the other people are the butt of the jokes.
Winnie, when Savannah was a little girl, did you know she would grow up to be a writer?
W: Actually, I did. There was this one thing that she wrote, and it was in pencil and she was probably about 8, and it was the beginning chapter of a novel —
S: It was a fantasy novel. I set it up in this very dramatic way, like, “He didn’t know that everything was about to change for him … ” It’s incredibly heavy-handed.
W: She was really young, and when I read it, I remember saying to my husband [actor Paul Dooley, who has a role on Huge], “You better take a look at this.” I never dreamed that she would want to follow into the business I was in; I thought she would go far afield, because I figured that would be a natural way for her to stake out her own identity. The fact that she didn’t do that is really touching.
S: It’s brought us very close because …
W: We love working together. And also, now she’s living out the kinds of pressure I dealt with when she was a little girl and I was working in TV. She has a new understanding of the obstacles of my life, and the challenges of my life.