Toby from This Is Us isn’t really fat and I’m not okay with it.
In love with This Is Us? Of course you are. Me too. What’s not to love? It’s a sharply written and relevant dramedy that tugs at my heartstrings and offers enough hope to make me think that, as it turns out, I might survive a world without the Bravermans or the entire town of Dillon, Texas. This Is Us feels so much like real life that you almost refuse to believe that it’s not…
Until you find out that one of the lead characters — whose storyline SQUARELY focuses on life as an overweight man — is played by an actor who straps on a fat suit to fit the part. And all you can think is, well, this is apparently not us if we are fat in real life. Because faking a fat man while simultaneously employing an overweight actress to round out the character duo is just another form of body shaming rather than what it could have been — a thoughtful look at the very real highs and lows felt by people struggling with weight issues.
For those unfamiliar with the series, it follows three very different adult siblings as their lives intertwine, while sprinkling in — creatively out of sequence — flashbacks of their childhood that underscore why they rejoice, struggle and band together just as they do. Depression, despair, disease, selfishness, obesity, relationship woes, raising kids, adoption — they’re all there. ALL the issues. Which, on the one hand, could make you roll your eyes at its overdone attempts to force each episode to feel like a grownup, scripted version of a “the more you know” PSA. But, on the other hand, you cheer. Because, thankfully, it’s produced in such an authentic way that it elicits a well-earned “finally, someone gets it” about the ups and downs of adulthood that we all feel.
That’s what makes the fat suit discovery all that more jarring. Because despite the storyline of Kate and Toby falling in love while also struggling with being overweight, only one of the actors, Chrissy Metz, might actually know what that feels like.
Before I go further, let me just preface the haters who might surface: this is not a gripe against the wonderfully talented Chrissy Metz or Chris Sullivan. Not even a tad. You keep on being you. You’re awesome. You’re both beautiful as you are. This is not about you. Clear? This is about NBC and the production powers-that-be and the choices they made to deliver an “authentic” drama.
This isn’t new news, of course. It’s not as if Chris Sullivan has been kept in seclusion to prevent us from seeing the real him. Or that NBC has attempted to shield this from us via limited promotional efforts with the actors. He’s been the size he is from day one, and it’s definitely on me to have only just now caught onto it.
But, as a fan, I bought into the poignant, relatable and immersive storytelling of This Is Us. So much so that I didn’t feel the need to peek behind the curtain Oz-style to see how the magic was made. I so wholly believed in what was coming through the screen at me that I didn’t care to go on a fishing expedition to discredit the genuine packaging that NBC gifted us in the way of the Big Three and their very real #adulting struggles.
Shame on me. But more so, shame on NBC.
A million years ago, I worked in casting, coincidentally enough, at NBC. I don’t proport to be an expert, but here’s what I do recall from the time I spent on that side of the television. There is always a way to maintain authenticity without cutting corners. Because let’s be clear — this is not a rant about a British actor pulling off a Southern character. It’s not about an adult playing a teenager, ala pretty much any teen soap that’s ever aired. Or a case of being too tall, too short, too hairy, too bald, too etc. Yes, this is about the physicality of the actor but, somehow, this feels more personal.
Plenty of gifted actors have lost out to roles they nailed performance-wise because they didn’t fit the bill physically. I know because I’m married to one. Apparently, that wasn’t the case here.
So when I saw that picture of Chrissy Metz and Chris Sullivan and felt utterly gobsmacked, I did the thing you do in this digital day and age — I texted and emailed and Facebook messaged all my friends who are equally enamored with the show to share this WTF moment with them. I baited them (“Ready for a This is Us bomb?”) and then — bam — dropped the picture through the interwebs. Clearly, I was not only looking to commiserate with them, but also looking to gauge their reaction too. Was I crazy, or did this irk them as much as it did me? As it turns out, it largely did. “Phoning a friend” only made these unanswered thoughts that had first washed into my brain stay firmly nestled with no closure. Ergo, this post.
- Is it too ambitious to believe that the casting director and producers could have found an actor that both struck the precise charismatic chord of Toby AND the physical characteristics? Chrissy Metz is your answer to that. This gorgeous and talented actress brings Kate to life with so much heart and an innate ability to connect to the material that you can’t imagine anyone else playing Kate. Could NBC have found a smaller performer to be the perfect Kate? Possibly, but they didn’t need to.
- Is it utterly ridiculous to imagine that a not-fat Toby would fall in love with Kate? When producers decided their heart was set on Chris Sullivan as Toby, couldn’t they have pondered a storyline arc revision, one that didn’t hinge on both actors being overweight? Sure, it wouldn’t be focused on their shared weight battle, but it could have still found life looking in on the struggle of one partner with weight issues (whether small or big) and how the other partner fumbles their way to find a comfortable footing in navigating dating, sex, communication and everything else with this person they’ve found. Love comes in plenty of shapes and sizes, some matching and some perfectly blended. Let the storyline evolve as it would in real life and don’t employ prosthetics to force the script. Of course it would have meant a thinner man finding appeal in a fat woman, and that’s apparently not a storyline NBC could stomach. Pop culture would tell us the reverse would be fine, as we see example after example of smaller women finding love with the funny, round man. Hell, we have a whole hashtagged subculture around the #dadbod.
- Do we have to have them both be overweight so that they’ll have something to focus on? Admittedly, this one goes beyond the fat suit — it speaks to the depth of the storytelling here. The Toby and Kate saga, albeit captivating, is frustratingly one dimensional. A friend offered up a reply that was so was so spot-on that I’m including it verbatim: “It’s almost offensive to any woman who’s trying to lose weight and struggling — as if we all must clearly be obsessed with that and only that, with no other life interests.” Finding out that one actor wears a fat suit to nail this one dimension adds insult to narrative injury.
- Chrissy Metz is, by her own admission, contractually obligated to lose weight as the storyline progresses along with Kate and Toby. Chris Sullivan, in theory, will just don a slimmed down fat suit to show his transformation. I’ll just let that one sit there for a second.
Still with me? I actually saw one comment on a friend’s facebook thread that lamented how much time poor Chris must have to spend in the makeup trailer to get the prosthetic fat suit added each day, and how that time would be affected by the slimming down of the prosthetic over time. WTAF. There is so much insensitive lunacy baked into that mentality that I’m just going to leave it buried in that FB thread for it to die a twisted death and, for the sake of all that is right and Chrissy Metz, move ON. SWIFTLY.
I’m such a sucker for great television that I’ll keep watching. The writing is smart and the chemistry among the actors effervescent — all complemented by a soundtrack that feels as though it was synced to your own life. But with the curtain lifted on how we achieved this level of “real”, it feels more like This Is TV than This Is Us.