NEW YORK – "Starved" (search) feeds on the culture's jangled issues about food, in shockingly funny ways. Invading an area we might have thought off-limits to TV comedy, this new scripted series uses actors with actual eating disorders to find uneasy humor in the plight of four fictional characters plagued by self-starvation, obesity and bulimia.
One of the characters is Billie, a young if hard-bitten aspiring singer who is also a recovering anorexic.
"I had this idea," she tells the support group she frequents with her three comrades, "that if I weighed my laxatives like I weigh my food, I might be able to keep them to a manageable amount."
Thus does "Starved" nail the mind games so many of us play with our health and body image. And not just those of us diagnosable as addicts. The series (which premieres 10 p.m. Thursday on FX) should ring true for anyone who ever spoke of eating as "a guilty pleasure," dabbled in fad diets or looked to the bathroom scales for self-approval.
"Food is the most basic forum for discussing things like love and the absence of love; how we hurt ourselves and how we heal ourselves," says Laura Benanti (search), who plays Billie.
As it happens, Benanti knows firsthand. Now 26, she's a veteran performer whose first Broadway show was "The Sound of Music" at 18, followed by another musical called "Swing!" where, surrounded by rail-thin dancers, she concluded: "I'm fat."
Eating almost nothing and working out ferociously, she took off 25 pounds during the show's run. At 5-feet-8, she hit 106 pounds. By then her hair was falling out.
Since getting help, Benanti has held her weight at 125, and stayed busy in theater and films. Now, as she sinks her teeth into this all-too-familiar role, she marvels how "our inability to live with food in a healthy way is so indicative of how we feel on the inside: how lonely or sad or scared."
Billie is the sole female among the four friends who are battling a condition commonly associated with young women. But that's not the only way "Starved" defies our expectations.
As another twist, just one of the friends is genuinely overweight: Dan, played by Del Pentecost (search). A writer by trade, he's a compulsive overeater who snacks on doughnuts by the dozen and, at the diner with his chums, swallows four breakfasts in the time it takes Billie to worry down her carrot.
But now meet Adam (played by Sterling K. Brown (search)). Looking anything but sick, he's an NYPD cop with a chiseled, buff physique. He's also a closet bulimic.
Completing the foursome is Sam, a narcissistic commodities broker who is recovering from anorexia and compulsive overeating.
"It's so weird how I can look really quite devastatingly handsome and thin, and also extremely fat, all at the same time," Sam observes to Billie as he inspects himself in a mirror at his gym. To the outside world, of course, he looks like neither: He's rather ordinary in appearance.
Sam is played by Eric Schaeffer, who also created "Starved" and wrote and directed all seven half-hours.
Schaeffer, a New York-based filmmaker-actor whose credits include "My Life's in Turnaround" and "If Lucy Fell," explains that the series sprang from his desire "to do something in the area of addiction. Alcoholism and drug addiction was too specific but most people, I thought, have some kind of challenge in their relationship with food."
These people include him, as he readily concedes between scenes at the Brooklyn loft where most of the interiors were shot.
"Basically not an hour goes by in my life that I'm not preoccupied with food," says Schaeffer (5-feet-8 and 155 pounds) — "with what I can eat, when I can eat it, have I eaten too much of something, bargaining with myself, rationalizing: If I work out a certain amount, am I allowed a reward of a certain kind of food."
His special reward: those yummy little Nemo's chocolate cakes, which he craves as much as the character he plays.
In the opening scene, Sam wrestles with himself over this fetish food. Already he had sprinkled household cleanser on his latest stash to keep himself from eating it, then tossed it in his building's garbage chute. But he can't resist. He races to the basement, where he retrieves his cake from a trash can and, whisking off the detergent as best he can, scarfs it down.
Gross. And hilarious.
"I have to write from my experience," says Schaeffer, 43, who has liberally drawn on his experience with eating disorders. "If I wasn't a member of the club, I don't think it would be as funny, or that I would feel as authorized to look at it with humor."
"It took a lot of courage for Eric to put it on paper," says Brown, who adds with a chuckle, "It's a pretty extreme kind of show."
Brown is a 29-year-old St. Louis native who had a recurring role on NBC's "Third Watch." Now he's playing another cop, one whose technique for on-the-job purging includes jabbing at his stomach with his police baton.
Brown says that, unlike Adam, "I don't purge. But I think there are a lot of points of entry for me to connect with the guy.
"I'm very body-conscious," he explains, then recounts that morning's particularly tough training session. He was preparing for a scene where he would take his shirt off. But fearing he would somehow pudge out if he ate anything, he decided to skip food until after his scene was shot.
"Different shapes and sizes, man," sighs Brown, summing up the range of people with food issues.
"I'm obsessed with food, and I didn't realize it until I started on this show," says Pentecost, who estimates his current weight at 300 pounds after maxing out at 400. "I've been married 17 years, so my fantasies aren't so much sexual in nature anymore. But my wife," he laughs suggestively, "makes a great apple pie."
The 41-year-old actor, who began bulking up as a 190-pound high school football lineman back in Haltom City, Tex., has appeared in the ABC miniseries "Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital" and the features "Coyote Ugly" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
"I've been in more than one commercial as the fat screaming fan in the stands," he adds.
But doesn't playing Dan — a character both defined by and at war with his obesity — hit painfully close to home?
"At first I thought it might," Pentecost replies. "But the honesty of the show actually makes it kind of freeing." Besides, salvation could be on the way. He hopes that if there's a second season for "Starved," maybe his character will get to slim down.
"I would love for them to say, `We're picked up for more episodes and Dan will be 50 pounds lighter — let's do it!' That would be great."