When I watched the pilot of the new show BINGE, I didn't know whether to turn it off, laugh, get angry, be disgusted, or throw my feminist fist in the air. And, in a way, that's exactly what the show's creator and star Angela Gulner wants. The new dark comedy about an unhinged bulimic woman, which premiered online Nov. 29, is all about pushing the boundaries of what kind of woman can be depicted on TV — but it is also potentially majorly triggering for those who've struggled with eating disorders.
The behavior of BINGE's main character, also named Angela, should offend just about anyone — she vomits graphically within minutes of the pilot's start, she sleeps with a dude in exchange for his coffee mug, she sabotages her best friend's engagement dinner, and she tries to seduce an eating disorder therapist just to get out of treatment. Much like Phoebe Waller-Bridge's acclaimed character on Amazon's Fleabag , Gulner is trying to create a darker, funnier, cruder version of the Woman In Crisis archetype.
"I grew up watching those made-for-TV movies about the sad anorexic girls," Gulner tells Bustle. "And they just rang so false. There was too much emotional manipulation, too much 'teaching a lesson,' too many scare tactics. And so many family dramas or procedurals on network TV just give eating disorders a stupid one-episode arc: little sister won't eat, family is concerned, family sits down and has emotional talk with little sister, little sister cries, little sister eats, eating disorder cured ...That's insanity."
Gulner knows the so-called "road to recovery" is much longer than that. She suffered from an eating disorder, on-and-off, for 10 years.
"Was I that drunk? Yes. Was I that sick? Yes. Was I that selfish? Yes. Was I that promiscuous? Sorry mom, but kinda, yeah."
"When I was 17, I accidentally-on-purpose let a diet go too far, and ended up anorexic." Despite hair loss, constant shivering, an alarmingly-low heart-rate, and deep depression, she thought she was in control of it — until her friends had an intervention and made her get help. She tried to get therapy, but she says she was far from "ready" to let go of her eating disorder.
When she started college, her anorexia morphed into bulimia — "and that sneaky little bitch became my best friend until I was 27," Gulner says. "She was always in the back of my brain, like a hot, stubborn little Regina George." Things got progressively worse over the next seven years — she was bulimic throughout her time in grad school, and soon added alcohol abuse into the mix. Like her character Angela, Gulner says, "I was a real disaster to behold."
Also like her character, Gulner started drunk-emailing and drunk-dialing eating disorder treatment facilities in the middle of the night. ("Can a flag get any redder?") Finally, she was placed in a partial hospitalization treatment facility where she got treatment six-days-a-week, seven-hours-a-day, for four months. And — to her own surprise — it worked.
Since her graduation from the program, Gulner says she's proud to say she hasn't relapsed. "I honestly don’t even remember what I ate for breakfast today, and if you’ve ever struggled with an eating disorder, you know just how big a deal that is. I didn’t think there was a way to live without bulimia, and now I’m living it. I’m free."
Just a few months out of treatment, the actor (who has also been on Glee and Silicon Valley ) felt inspired by her experience in the eating disorder treatment facility to create BINGE with co-writer Yuri Baranovsky. They wrote the character of Angela to be sort of like Gulner's Id.
"Was I that drunk? Yes. Was I that sick? Yes. Was I that selfish? Yes. Was I that promiscuous? Sorry mom, but kinda, yeah. Angela in the series is how I wanted to behave when I was in my eating disorder, but the real me was too concerned with that others thought of me to be that irreverent," Gulner says. Angela, on the other hand, "doesn't give a f*ck." Seriously — she makes Curb Your Enthusiasm' s Larry David look demure.
To top it all off, Gulner also made Angela a professional baker. Watching her binge and purge on icing makes for the darkest comedy — a finger down the throat can appear at any moment, and the result is both upsetting, crass, and kind of radical. That effect is intentional. "[The show] feels like what bulimia felt like to me. The details might be a little different, the comedy might be edged up a bit — but the feeling of it is dead on. I watch it and I go — Yes. That was it. That was how it felt."
Of course, Gulner knows the show could be more-than-triggering for someone with an eating disorder. She says she wouldn't advise watching it if you're in the early stages of recovery. "But on the other hand ... maybe I would? Because I think there's comfort to be found in knowing you're not alone."
Her therapist disagrees. Gulner showed the pilot to her shrink, who then shared it with the staff at the eating disorder treatment facility. "She told me that the staff also really liked it, too, but they were a little shocked at just how in-your-face it is. They're really glad I'm doing it, but did say that it could be triggering to someone still in the early stages of recovery."
Personally, I felt upset watching it — and I've never even suffered from bulimia. But I also felt oddly captivated and mostly forgiving of some of the clunkier bits of writing, and curious about what's next for Angela's character. While the pilot is far from perfect, it was also apparent to me that this show is potentially revolutionary in its darkly-comic and brash depiction of a woman with an eating disorder. I've definitely never seen anything like it.
Gulner says she envisions the rest of the season set half in the treatment facility, and half in Angela’s outside life. While in treatment, the series would blossom into an ensemble piece, kind of like Orange is the New Black. But in order for that to happen, Gulner needs your views first. She decided to bypass the studio system altogether and develop the pilot on her own, hoping to get it picked up or sponsored if it gets enough eyeballs.
"The industry is changing so quickly right now. Most people are viewing their content online, and because of that, the power is shifting more and more into the hands of the viewers," Gulner says. If you want more female-driven content and depictions of flawed, dark women on TV, she's asking you to watch and share BINGE . So far, only the pilot is shot — but if it gets enough views, she's hopefully she'll get backed to shoot more of the show.
Whatever happens, Gulner says the process of making BINGE has been healing — vomit humor and all. "I lived this for 10 years, and I'm sick of crying about it, so I have to laugh. It's not how everyone processes, and that's OK. But it's how I have to process, it's how I achieve catharsis."
Images: Angela Gulner