I have to admit: despite my initial skepticism, I’m really starting to like CHELSEA SETTLES. The MTV docu-series is a kind of coming-of-age story covering Chelsea’s transformation upon graduating from her small-town Pennsylvania high school and moving to LA. Her transformation is multi-faceted: it’s geographical, maturational, professional, and as MTV has been portending, physical. The protagonist aspires to a career in fashion, and her three-hundred pound frame is portrayed as an obstacle. Like other makeover shows, Chelsea’s size is seen to weigh her down in both body and soul, holding her back mentally as much as it is supposed to physically. Although the network seems to be using the weight loss storyline to draw interest in the advertising, the sense that I’m getting from the first few shows is that the mental and emotional transformations–with Chelsea learning to love and accept herself as she grows and changes through all of these new life experiences–are the ones that are likely to be most emphasized through the first season
Chelsea’s framed as a pretty girl who happens to be larger, a likeable and relatable girl who faces a lot of the same fears and insecuritites as many other young women her age. Although some of her struggles are graver than others her age might be expected to face–like her mother’s very serious health problems, involving the need for kidney and pancreas transplants–these make Chelsea into an extremely sympathetic and frankly admirable character, moreso than I feel might be the case if she had only what seem to be “run of the mill” reality tv transitional and physical issues.
Although the series functions primarily as a reality tv program, replete with confessional scenes that help to supply a voiceover, it also seems to have the feeling of THE HILLS, as a kind of “docu-soap” with a massaged coming-of-age narrative involving the transitional experiences of a young woman trying to break her way into the fashion business. The cinematography doesn’t have quite the same polished look of MTV’s former unscripted series, but it still feels very well-designed and well-edited, with a steady handheld camera that captures similar sights of the LA environs. Comparing the privileged, thin, white local Lauren to the underprivileged, thick, black newcomer Chelsea may seem like a stretch, but perhaps shows like TEEN MOM have helped MTV to find a way to refresh their most popular programming themes in relation to the more underserved parts of their audience.
Aside from the thin and local part, I would probably seem more like Lauren than Chelsea, but I relate to Chelsea and I root for her more than I ever did Lauren. I’m sure the underdog positioning helps, but she legitimately has more at stake: her challenges seem more significant and therefore her struggles more real than Lauren’s ever did. If MTV had to include a retrograde weight-loss makeover show like I USED TO BE FAT on its fall slate, I’m glad they paired it with such refreshing reality retake as CHELSEA SETTLES.