Created by Eric Schaeffer
Produced by Daniel Hank
Aired on FX for 1 season (7 episodes) from August 4, 2005 – September 15, 2005
Eric Schaeffer as Sam
Laura Benanti as Billie Frasier
Sterling K. Brown as Adam Williams
Del Pentecost as Dan Roundtree
A group of four New York friends, each suffering from eating disorders, attend meetings at “Belt Tighteners”, an independent support group that uses shame based techniques to help improve their eating habits. The group centers mainly on Sam, a commodities trader who is anorexic who compulsively overeats a special brand of chocolate snack. He is in love with his bisexual friend Billie, a local singer/songwriter, who is an alcoholic as well as an anorexic bulimic. They frequent a local diner with pals Dan and Adam to discuss their food issues after their meetings. Dan is a novelist who is afraid that his weight is affecting his marriage, while Adam is a bulimia-suffering police officer that often abuses his power as a law enforcer to enable his binge and purging sessions.
The series explores the effect of these eating disorders on the lives of the four friends as they try to overcome their conditions. The humor is a black comedy tone that prides itself on shining a light on edgier subject matters such as S & M role play, injuries during masturbation, anal cleansing, wonky new age philosophy, and toxic relationships.
Television is evolving, and has been happening for quite some time now. Where once the broadcast network system would be the breeding ground of workman-type productions that had to go through endless filters (network executives, advertisers, the FCC) before reaching their audiences, now the hurdles are getting shorter for creative minds to utilize the television medium as a platform for more personal artistic expression with control stemming from a singular vision. Film had often been the venue of choice for this type of expression as the director was considered to be the nexus of artistic control of a production. For television this role was given to the writer/producer commonly known as the showrunner, yet even they are seldom given as much creative control as the director on a film set.
In the nineties, there was an abundance of actor/directors that felt it was not enough to be behind the camera but wanted to be in front of it in order to fully immerse the audience in their self expression. This era in film brought out directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Ed Burns, Steve Buscemi, and Spike Lee, each of which considered themselves to be the triple threat of actor/writer/director to varying degrees. These filmmakers each put themselves on display to an extent that would evoke polarizing criticism either causing reverence or indignation, depending on how the critic felt about the director personally. The common criticism of these kinds of directors are either they are artistic geniuses that are not afraid to express their unique personality or voice or they are egotistical blowhards wallowing in over-pretentious self indulgence. Oddly, both are true.
It is more common now to see a director/writer/actor indulge in their unique voice on television as shows like HBO’s Girls, FX’s Louie, and even recent addition Netflix’s Master of None. These are not all shows that have a pure auteur sensibility in every episode of these series, but each of these shows do have elements of a unique and personal voice and vision unlike what has been presented in television before. In 2005, FX took a chance on one of these unique voices with the Eric Schaeffer-created series Starved.
Eric Schaeffer began his directing career with the independent comedy My Life’s in Turnaround, which brought him some notoriety and success which he channeled towards making his first foray into television, a sitcom called Too Something, which was later named New York Daze before being cancelled with thirteen unaired episodes. After television, Schaeffer returned to filmmaking with notable hit If Lucy Fell starring Sarah Jessica Parker and a few lesser known feature films. From there he returned to television, developing a show for FX, a network which at the time was known for its dramas Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck, and The Shield. Looking to build up their comedy brand, the network optioned Eric Schaeffer’s Starved as well as new comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Schaeffer brought in a terrific cast including Del Pentecost coming off from Kingdom Hospital, Sterling K. Brown after a reoccurring run on Third Watch, and—making her television debut after a very successful run on Broadway—Laura Benanti. For this series, Schaeffer drew from his real life issues with eating difficulties that he had endured for twenty years prior, as well as other addictions. The series had an eight day shooting schedule for each half hour episode which were shot out of order and then pieced together in editing. After the show premiered it got mixed reviews, some praising it as being a respectful depiction of the eating disorder community while others berated it as being an awful parody and an insult to people suffering from these conditions. It certainly was not a series that was going to be welcomed by a wide audience and so FX canceled the show.
Although the series was not beloved by many, it did have its merits and a very specific perspective and take on the issue of body image and eating disorders, and had it lasted longer, it could’ve opened the conversation about these conditions to more viewers. The series is in some ways a successor to Seinfeld with its self-involved protagonists, but with even darker themes and more explicit language. The criticism that these four are caricatures is not a false claim, but depending upon the viewer’s enjoyment of their time with these characters, that opinion will vary. Sam, as portrayed by Eric Schaffer, is a narcissistic and a crude personality who considers himself a romantic despite treating his dates more like commodities rather than people. He has a sense of superiority that allows him to feel emotionally corrupted, such as when after he decides he wants to pull back a relationship from moving too fast by agreeing to see other people, he gets upset upon learning that his non-girlfriend decides to follow through and date other people. This is the type of thing that would play better as comedy on Seinfeld, but somehow on this show it seems to cut deeper, creating a dislike of Sam.
When we are introduced to Billie, she is less than sympathetic as her main attribute is being the one female voice to call out Sam for what he is, which comes off as bitchy rather than a real person expressing actual thoughts. Adam is even less likable as he abuses his power as a police officer to enable his eating disorder, and it’s not bad enough that he is stealing Chinese food from a courier. He also mocks the guy with an offensive impersonation of broken English. It’s clear how many could not get through this pilot. The only one of the four that appears to be the least contemptible is Dan, whose eating disorder has him questioning the longevity of his marriage. The arc that Dan has is perhaps the most interesting out of the four as he fears his wife will leave him because of his weight issue, but ends up doing other things that create a rift between him and his wife, therefore making his fears a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Within the seven episode run, Sam would encounter women to date that he would try to cultivate a relationship with, only to drop them at a drop of a hat for inconsequential reasons. The main romantic arc developed is between Sam and Billie, a bisexual passing herself off as a lesbian to further her career. The arc had its strongest turn when Billie actively seduced one of Sam’s more beloved suitors only to deny that she did because she had feelings for him. As much of a fantasy as this seems, this is where the series found a direction, as Sam was given a goal to keep the show from floundering on just being everyday cynicism. Billie tells Sam that if he quits eating his favorite guilt food for thirty days she will consider being with him. Unfortunately, the arc was not carried out for a few reasons, the main one being that the series was cancelled and no more episodes were produced to follow up.
The best part of this series is the good performances by all the actors, especially Laura Benanti. In episode four, “3D”, she has an amazing turn of character that really shows her as the cruel temptress that Schaeffer has envisioned her to be, and Benanti pulls it off perfectly in a scene that is well shot that really places you right in the moment. Another of the show’s best qualities is that it is extremely well made and edited and has the look of a really good independent film, which makes sense considering Schaeffer’s background.
Another highlight to the series is the interesting shame-based support group that was featured at times with the group leader being played by Jackie Hoffman. Hoffman has a very recognizable face and a fun sarcastic wit about her. The show also featured a notable cameo role for Darryl Hammond, who plays a mentor of sorts to the misfit cop Adam as he shows him the best places to hide his purging. There is also a blink and you miss it cameo by Jenny Slate as a background character in the support group meeting, and lastly Rebecca Mader appears as Sam’s fantasy dream girl from an often-played commercial.
It was once rare to find this type of introspection in television, at least to this degree, but as television changes with the boundary pushing of cable channels, and format shift of streaming sites, it appears the ground is fertile for more creatively controlled productions that will allow personal singular voice and expression. Whether you find Schaeffer’s work to be brilliant or incredibly awful, there’s no denying that it takes a certain kind of filmmaker to be able to draw that kind of strong sense of appreciation or distaste, and those are typically from directors who put a lot of themselves in their work. Schaeffer may not be great but he certainly has made some interesting and self-reflective productions that make for profound and confounding art, and Starved is one of his better productions.
Eric Schaeffer would go on to create and star in I Can’t Believe I’m Still Single and Gravity (co created with Jill Franklyn).
Laura Benanti would go on to appear on Eli Stone, The Playboy Club, Go On, Nashville, and is currently on Supergirl.
Sterling K. Brown has since appeared on Supernatural, Person of Interest, Army Wives, and will be appearing on American Crime Story.
Del Pentecost went on to appear on Canterbury’s Law, In the Loop, The Unusuals, and Gravity.
There is no home video release of this series but all seven episodes are available to stream on Youtube.