Everyone, please think back to the summer of 2015. It was a high time, where we had no idea who would win the next presidential election, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” and UnReal had just hit airwaves. Oh, UnReal. The first season of Lifetime’s reality TV satire was a delicious bacchanal of behind-the-scenes machinations, black comedy, and narrative middle fingers to sexist stereotypes. UnReal season 1 was a perfect batch of 10 fearlessly batshit crazy episodes.
In the three years since, few series have had the magic of Rachel Goldberg’s (Shiri Appleby) television introduction — especially not the subsequent seasons of UnReal, which was created by TV powerhouse Marti Noxon, who has since left the series. Yet, the upcoming premiere of AMC’s Dietland gave us a glimmer of hope that we could once again experience the wonder of UnReal's early days. After all, Dietland, kicking off Monday, June 4, is also a Noxon cable creation that will tackle rarely dealt with feminist quandaries (this time, how women’s publications can harm women’s entire worldview… plus the best way to punish perpetrators of sex assault). Dietland is even premiering in the summer, as UnReal did long ago.
But, unfortunately, the dramedy doesn’t have the crackling wit and divine darkness one would hope. That is probably because Dietland, an adaptation of Sarai Walker's novel of the same name, goes for visceral, literal commentary, instead of mining UnReal's tendency to drag society’s ills with a wink, a nod, and some foul-mouthed insults or spine-tingling subterfuge.
The first few seconds of Dietland immediately telegraph that the drama takes itself super seriously. The first image you see in the show’s pilot is a woman covering up a bruised eye with some concealer. While there could be a thoughtful discussion here about how domestic abuse survivors process their trauma, the series-opening visual instead feels like a flash-in-the-pan metaphor about women using makeup to hide their most concerning wounds. Moments later, we see a hand cutting its owner’s own breast with a razor. Again, a possibly weighty, conversation-starting image immediately comes off as a for-shock, and fairly on-the-nose, statement about how the world’s expectations make women hurt themselves. Amid all of this brutality, we hear the voiceovers of in-crisis women. The women are the people writing into “Dear Kitty,” a fictional advice column in the fictional magazine Daisy Chain.
This is how we’re introduced to Alicia “Plum” Kettle (Joy Nash), Dietland's hero and the woman who ghostwrites the “Dear Kitty” responses in the place of the real Kitty, Daisy Chain's vain editor-in-chief Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies, having the time of her life). So much of Dietland is dedicated to how unhappy Plum is to be a plus-size woman. In voiceover, Plum details how little she likes her body. On screen, we see how true that is as Plum shrouds herself in head-to-toe black, gawks at a fellow plus-size woman who happily brags about all the “hot dick” she gets, and practically counts down the days until she can undergo major weight-loss surgery.
If Dietland were to skewer the problematic factors creating this kind of self-loathing in women, it would be one of the best new shows of the summer. Rather, the dramedy seems to lightly poke fun at the systems working to ruin Plum’s self esteem, while also taking her self-hatred at obvious face value, as if everyone who looks like Plum detests their body. But, whether you ask the Internet’s baddest fat Black girl or Roxane Gay, such internalized hatred isn’t universal for plus-size women.
That’s why Dietland would be so much more fulfilling if it showed viewers precisely how Plum came to worship dangerous fad diets, cruel thoughts, and a very complicated, unsatisfying, romantic life. Yet, the closest we get to this kind of explanation within the first three episodes of Dietland, which were made available to critics, is confirming Plum has struggled with her weight since childhood. Again, the reason why that struggle is such a cornerstone of Plum's being eludes us. After watching most plus-size women on television stories be solely about the fact they are plus-size — looking at you, Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) — this kind of flat storytelling can feel exhausting.
Although Dietland doesn’t seem to know how to handle its attempts at body positivity, the dramedy’s salvation does lie in how it handles its creeping revenge fantasy element. As the series begins, Plum is slowly dragged into the Jennifer movement, which seems to be a vigilante group dedicated to punishing sexual predators. And, by “punish,” Jennifer means dropping rapists from the sky and onto unsuspecting cars, highways, and restaurant patios. This kind of splashy, grim vengeance is an exciting concept after the #MeToo movement dominated headlines since the fall of 2017. But all of the Jennifer intrigue is relegated to the background of Dietland, merely looming over the story rather than dominating it. That fact is unfortunate since Jennifer is wildly interesting. Its members wear masks that no one should spoil for you. They love dramatic, over-the-top violent displays. They give their abductees, who have all sexually assaulted women, pun-themed group nicknames.
It’s difficult to watch a plus-size woman complain about her body for episodes straight when there is a far more creative, explosive conspiracy afoot — and it’s one that a gorgeous plus-size woman could easily be a part of. Thankfully, it’s entirely possible, and plausible, Plum will be joining Jennifer’s tattooed vigilante escapades; only, it seems we’ll have to wait a while for that kind of fiery fun to unfold on Dietland.
At least the third episode of the Joy Nash-starrer suggests the AMC show will be taking viewers on the kind of rebellious, witty, and, honestly, weird ride they should look for in a Marti Noxon production. Not to spoil anything, but, “Y Not” involves a bizarro, hilarious tiger sexual fantasy, a plus-size fashion hallucination that would make Alice In Wonderland’s Red Queen proud, and some very fun, UnReal-ish twists for its lead characters.
Although the very beginning of Dietland might not whet your appetite, it’s quite possible the rest of the season will be as delicious as one of Plum’s chocolate cakes.
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