The skinny on ‘The Skinny’
Erin McAuliffe | Thursday, February 4, 2016
In the so touted Golden Age of Television, I am forced to respond negatively to “Have you seen *insert culturally relevant TV show here*?” at least three times per day.
My tagline has morphed into, “Perpetually about to watch ‘Transparent.’” So, when “The Skinny,” a bite-sized web-series produced by Jill Soloway (creator of “Transparent”), presented itself via a banner ad on Refinery29, I decided to give it a go.
The miniseries premiered at Sundance in January and is a collaboration between female-focused web-content platforms Refinery29 and Wifey.TV (the latter cofounded by Soloway). The season’s six episodes range from 10 to 14 minutes, resembling hit web-series “High Maintenance” and “Broad City” in both structure and potential.
You might recognize star Jessie Kahnweiler from her unconventional, politically-charged YouTube content — including a video that made the Facebook rounds when she attempted to get arrested, testing her white privilege. As well as starring, Kahnweiler created, wrote, directed and produced the series, which is touted as “an original dark comedy series that follows feminist wannabe YouTube star Jessie as she explores love, life and friendship in L.A. — while struggling with bulimia.” (The description begs for a comma after “feminist.”)
Bulimia is often an illness merely alluded to — if addressed at all — in media. While the series finds warranted humor in just about every aspect of Jessie’s life, the binge and purge scenes are devastatingly visceral. Pulling from the Golden Age TV shows I have watched, this aspect of the plot — addressing a serious and under-represented mental illness — mirrors the affecting, paramount portrayal of Gretchen’s clinical depression on “You’re The Worst.”
Kahnweiler, whose Twitter bio reads “i can’t afford therapy so i make film,” addressed this aspect of the plot in an interview with Refinery29: “You’re showing why a person would puke, at what point, what are the triggers, what is it like after, what do you get from it … ‘The Skinny’ [is] a comedy, but there’s nothing funny about eating disorders. If you’ve had an eating disorder, it’s [expletive] hell.”
The show’s colorful, messy and hypnotic title sequence is set to “Paradise Girls” by Deerhoof, providing the feminist mantra “Girls, who are smart / Girls, who play the bass guitar / Girls, who will test.” Fittingly, Jessie is tested moments after the sequence ends — she picks up her boyfriend, Cole, from rehab as he flirtatiously bids goodbye to another patient and the two return home to a showy surprise party Jessie’s mom has thrown to their disarrayed dismay — and the tests don’t let up throughout the whole season.
Jessie closely resembles Ilana Glazer from “Broad City”: Both have a raw sense of humor that began with content on YouTube, both of their eyes frequently lean back in exasperation — usually at the patriarchy or over-priced sushi — and both of their wardrobes consist of T-shirts worn as dresses and jumpers that elicit the phrase “holy cameltoe.” The overlap is there, and importantly so — the Golden Age of Television needs more of these real women.
Jessie is not posed as a likable character. The audience has moments, especially profound in the final episode, where they can’t reason with Jessie’s seemingly selfish decisions. There are times we laugh with her, times we laugh at her, times we cry with her and times we cry for her, but never can we nor should we fully rationalize her decisions.
The idea of the likable female and, even more dangerously, the likable feminist, is explored in the third episode, “Squad.” Jessie’s new friend/agent Stuart shows one of her boundary-pushing YouTube videos to brand representatives. The clip, in which Jessie proposes to “screw” a Vet for Veteran’s Day to parallel how “screwed” most vets are socially and financially, elicits minimal claps and comments like: “There are no bones for monetization in this product,” and “No one likes women that real.” The feedback duplicates the comments her videos receive on YouTube and social media.
Although Stuart poses Jessie as “female-branded content” (paralleling the above-mentioned initiatives for successful media companies like Refinery29 and Wifey.TV) and claims “real women are the next wave of clickbait,” Jessie is shut down. The integration of Kahnwelier’s original YouTube content into the series works to further her characterization — although the show is not meant to be fully autobiographical. The amalgamation of original and scripted work again resembles “Broad City” and the creative ways the show’s producers have tied in original YouTube content via Abbi and Ilana’s web chats.
“The Skinny” is concisely and amusingly poignant: The season clocks in at less than an hour. With production by Soloway and backers like Refinery29, the initiative that was started by $12,000 in Kickstarter donations is poised to take off as an important piece of today’s media. Whether the series continues online or enters the Golden Age of TV, “The Skinny” is an easy binge-watch — that will importantly, if humorously, have you reconsidering that phrase.