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Kirstie Alley throws her weight around in the enjoyably over-the-top 'Fat Actress'

In the premiere of ''Fat Actress," a Hollywood weight-loss counselor played by Kelly Preston gives Kirstie Alley a quick tip for shedding pounds. Vomiting works quite well, she advises, but don't use your finger to gag yourself. Alas, it will ruin the nail.

Yes, Showtime's ''Fat Actress" is as crude as its star, Alley, who once paid public homage to her husband's genitalia in a 1991 Emmy acceptance speech.

The verite sitcom, which premieres tonight at 10, is not for the polite, the prudish, or the politically correct. It's unendingly coarse as it ridicules Hollywood's fixation on skinny women, Alley's zaftig-and-then-some heft, and the resulting decline of her TV career, whose recent highlight was a series of Pier 1 commercials. Neither sly nor subtle, it's a raunchy evisceration of America's weight obsession, complete with rude laxative jokes and the indelible image of Alley wailing for a bag of French fries. The free-floating offensiveness also includes a bit about how all black men fancy an ''ample rump."

I like the show, despite the excesses -- including Alley's overacting -- that will drive other viewers screaming from the screen. I like the way Alley uses self-mockery as a form of survival. She's laughing at her plus-size body instead of hiding it in shame so it won't make its way once again into the National Enquirer. There's something fearless about her face-the-pain approach on ''Fat Actress," which includes a joke about her telling people she's pregnant as an excuse for her stomach. It's as if she's co-opting the shame and controlling the game.

And she's simultaneously slamming Hollywood for its sexism, the word ''actress" being as operative in the show's title as the word ''fat." Aware that weight-based career declines are particular to women, she cries out that fat has not harmed the resumes of John Goodman, ''James Gandolfino" [sic], and Jason Alexander, whom she calls ''a freaking bowling ball." When she cuts out her Lane Bryant labels and sews in Prada, there's a cultural edginess to the act that cuts deeper than self-loathing.

The series is another foray into the genre of loose, semi-true, audience-free sitcoms such as ''Curb Your Enthusiasm," ''Unscripted," and Showtime's own now-defunct ''Chris Isaak Show." Each half-hour has an arc, but every scene has been improvised and left raw. Alley plays a heightened version of herself, and she's surrounded by famous people who also play themselves, including John Travolta, McG, and Kid Rock.

NBC president Jeff Zucker puts in an amusing cameo tonight, goofing on his reputation as an arrogant despot. He unwillingly takes a meeting with Alley, disdainfully humors her about putting her in a new TV series, and distractedly plays an electronic game throughout.

Meanwhile, everyone in Zucker's office widens their eyes at Alley's weight gain since her svelte days on ''Cheers." The show also features purely fictional characters, including Alley's assistant (Bryan Callen) and her makeup artist (Rachael Harris), both of whom are decidedly nuts.

Alley's acting style is even brasher here than it was during her stint on NBC's awful ''Veronica's Closet." She's more grating than Larry David in ''Curb," bleating neurotically and whining without respite. When she weighs herself in the bathroom of her estate tonight, she doesn't just frown or moan unhappily. She throws herself to the tile floor, writhing and sobbing in misery, then stuffs her face at a fast-food joint, the crumbs tumbling down her chest and into her negligee.

If you don't have a taste for over-the-top humor, you'll be reaching for the remote.

Is Alley degrading herself by turning her weight into a big joke? Or is she using her personal experience to degrade Hollywood?

Viewers may find themselves going back and forth on the issue, but perhaps catching a few broad laughs while they make up their minds.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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