'Dietland': TV Review

Instantly intriguing and cathartic.
6/4/2018

Marti Noxon's latest drama (adapted from Sarai Walker's best-selling novel) comes to AMC, tackling fat acceptance and feminist vengeance.

AMC's Dietland would still be culturally notable if it were merely a timely and trenchant drama about fat acceptance. Adapted from Sarai Walker's best-selling novel by creator Marti Noxon, the series follows Plum Kettle (played by Joy Nash), an advice columnist ruled “morbidly obese” who plans on becoming the woman she always wanted to be via gastric bypass surgery. Then, like a fairy-tale protagonist, she's chosen by a magical godmother of sorts to fulfill her real destiny. Plum's fate isn't to look like a Disney princess, but to help all women feel like one — through whatever means necessary.

Dietland is a riveting whirligig of a show: a tale of self-discovery, a manifesto about sizeism, a screed against consumer capitalism and a mystery about a radical feminist terrorist cell that uses vigilante violence to punish rapists, pedophiles and…magazine editors. The anger it evinces against misogyny in the first two episodes is raw, searing and justified, but also a tad unfocused. It's still unclear whether the terrorists throwing bad men off planes and buildings seem kinda goofy because they were written to be that way, or because sympathetic villains are hard to write.

For a series that's mostly set in a picturesque cafe, a glamorous magazine headquarters and an unrealistically nice New York apartment (for which the underpaid Plum pays her uncle below-market rent), Dietland begins with a gritty montage. “Dear Kitty,” reads Plum from her in-box brimming with teenage girls' tears, addressed to the editrix-in-chief of Daisy Chain magazine, the cold and canny Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies). We see a montage of all-too-common tragedies that befall all-too-many middle- and high-school girls: a black eye, bulimic vomiting, a knife blade slashing tender flesh. Also included are images of an arm rash, an eyebrow pluck and flattening out curls. Dietland's boldest assertion is that milder forms of sexism — like being judged for being plus-sized or catcalled on the street are on a spectrum with more brutal acts at the extreme end. It's undeniably true, but there's also something queasy about that lack of nuance.

But it just might be that pattern-finding — that grouping of diverse but related acts of transgression — that gives Dietland its significant emotional power: There's no end to the variations that misogyny will take. The last show to come out of the gate this relevant and think piece-ready was Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, which channeled fears of what those in charge might secretly want out of women. Dietland deals not with the abstract, but the concrete: What if everyday instances of sexism — which obviously hurt girls and women — were treated like criminal acts? A scene in which a Terry Richardson-like photographer, with a reputation for being creepy toward models, is kidnapped and forced to confess his crimes against womankind will surely resonate in the #MeToo era — as will the vibe that there's something both exhilarating and terrifying about this form of extra-legal feminist vengeance. 

The two strands of Dietland — Plum's journey toward self-acceptance and the payback murders in the background — don't quite seem like they belong on the same show, and thus make for an intriguing package. Bursts of animation and hallucinations help maintain a tone that's serious and earnest, but also playful and eerie. Plum tells us in voiceover that she's in a happier future, and that what we see is the beginning of her quest. It's still unclear whether Nash's slightly numbed performance is her interpretation of Plum' fearful and ascetic lifestyle or a reflection of the actress' talents. Margulies is terrific as a “wax Dracula” who's slowly revealed to be as terrified of judgment as Plum is, as is Erin Darke as a mysterious young woman who recruits our protagonist into her (mostly benign) undercover feminist activist group, despite her boss' (Tamara Tunie) reluctance. And Robin Weigert is excellent as always, playing an eccentric heiress who wants to atone for her family's misbegotten fortune by helping Plum become what the writer dreads becoming most: a “happy fatty." 

In its early going, at least, Dietland satisfies through its incisive satire of fat phobia, as well as its compassionate exploration of how low self-esteem can circumscribe not just one's life, but one's dreams for one's self as well. (Heartbreakingly, Plum calls the woman she'll become "Alicia" — her real and fantasy selves are so dissimilar they even have different names.) Being pressured to look a certain way is bad enough, but being made into a pariah for veering so far from the beauty ideal is a living nightmare. So it's cathartic to see a particularly toxic Weight Watchers coach tell Plum that she should knock out “bad behavior” like eating, because the thin person inside her wants out. There's a weary relief in being reminded that, yes, femininity can feel like a psychic hellscape sometimes. I laughed, because I didn't want to cry.

Cast: Joy Nash, Julianna Margulies, Adam Rothenberg, Tamara Tunie, Erin Darke, Robin Weigert, Rowena King, Tramell Tillman, Will Seefried
Creator: Marti Noxon
Premieres: Monday, June 4, 9 p.m. ET/PT (AMC)