Huge - Hayley Hasselhoff

The fat hits the campfire quite literally in Huge, as ABC Family tackles subject matter as tricky as it is weighty and comes up with a winner. This appealing and emotionally engaging series about life in a weight-loss summer camp comes with high expectations, having been co-created by Winnie Holzman, who enthralled a generation with the short-lived but long-remembered My So-Called Life.

Working with her daughter Savannah Dooley (with Holzman's husband Paul Dooley appearing in a key supporting role), this family affair is clearly a labor of love, as it allows Holzman again to demonstrate her rare gift for getting inside the minds of tormented adolescents who are often their own worst enemy. Even at their most appallingly self-absorbed, Holzman's young but hardly pint-sized characters are drawn with such sympathy and empathy you find yourself instantly rooting for them, even before the Biggest Loser pathos kicks in.

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The standout in the first episodes is Nikki Blonsky, a world removed from the perkiness of her Tracy Turnblad heroine in the movie version of Hairspray. As Willamina, or "Will" to her friends (friends being something of a rare commodity for her), she bristles with anger and self-loathing, masking her insecurities and unhappy family history in aggressive defensive posturing. During the admissions process, when she's forced to strip to her bathing suit, a reluctant and defiant Will turns the moment into a mortifying spectacle, a strip tease that would seem proud if it weren't so pathetic a bid for attention. When she says, "I'm down with my fat. Me and my fat are like BFF," there is plenty of reason to doubt, and to care.

Will regularly clashes with authority (including a drill-sergeant trainer from the School of Jillian and Gina Torres as the head counselor), and with many of her bunkmates — most notably Amber, a voluptuous beauty (nicely underplayed by Hayley Hasselhoff, daughter of guess-who) whose magazine photos of "thin-spiration" she tacks above her bunk are instantly mocked by her new, loud-mouthed nemesis.

The rest of the ensemble emerges tentatively, which makes sense for a group of peers who are used to being deemed invisible when not subjected to derision. Clues to identity are sharply drawn — a boy's "Shiz" T-shirt tells us he's a Wicked groupie (a nice in-joke, as Holzman wrote the book for that smash musical) — and when someone asks the inevitable "Do I seem gay to you" question, it's prefaced with "On a scale of 1 to Ellen."

This being an ABC Family show, Huge is not immune to schmaltz as it sets up its various romantic entanglements, including Amber's crush on the hunky new assistant trainer, who has his own reasons to be unsure of himself. But there is pain and fury at play here as well, as these plus-sized kids (who rarely take center stage on TV) battle their own damaged sense of self-worth and well-being as they form friendships and rivalries and share secrets the way anyone does when they go away to a life-changing camp experience.

In a busy and cluttered summer of new programming, much of which is decidedly underwhelming, Huge deserves to make a huge splash.

Huge premieres Monday night at 9/8c on ABC Family.

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