Insatiable Review: A Netflix Black Comedy Hungry For Controversy

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
There is a late-in-the-season scene of Netflix’s new teen show Insatiable that involves a possible demonic possession, a man in a fake priest costume, lots of shrieking, and a twist on an infamous pop cultural moment that shouldn't be spoiled. In the next scene, a surprise couple finally consummates their long-simmering tension. For just a few minutes, you get a glimpse of the kind of black comedy the streaming series dreamt of being. One that is silly and shocking and sometimes even sexy.
Unfortunately, Insatiable, which premieres Friday, August 10, isn’t actually that show roughly 97.85% of the time. Instead, it’s a series desperately attempting to be edgy while simply falling into one of two categories, often at the same time: offensive or unfunny.
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The premise of Insatiable, created by writer Lauren Gussis, who spoke out about battling an eating disorder as a teen, is now legend. Its trailer created the kind of internet backlash that leads to a 228,000-person-and-counting Change.org petition to stop Netflix from even airing the series. All of those people, along with the denizens of Twitter, accused the show of fat-shaming due to the preview's scenes of star, Jessie alum Debby Ryan, in a fat suit, looking disheveled and miserable, as her character Patty Bladell is tormented by her fellow high school students and relentlessly vilified. Well, the trailer proves to be a fair sneak peek at what's to come, especially throughout the series' first few episodes.
We enter the Southern-fried comedy when Patty is better known as “Fatty Patty.” To drive this fact home, the first time we see Ryan as Patty, she is in that previously mentioned over-the-top fat suit, pantsless in just a long-sleeved shirt, and grimacing in the mirror. It’s no surprise Patty is constantly devastated, as every single person around her is openly hostile to her body. She is so hated for her size that a homeless person tries to steal her food, calls her a “fatty,” and punches her right in the face (technically, though, Patty throws the first fist in an insatiable attempt to protect her food).
What should be a vilified act by a drunken adult man against a helpless teen girl turns out to be her saving grace. Thanks to Patty’s assault, her jaw is wired shut for three months, helping her lose a whopping 70 pounds. Whiz bang, physical violence is revealed to be a magic pill. With one time jump, Patty is now a Jessica Rabbit-style hottie. Her jawline, once buried under prosthetic fat, is now as sharp as a knife; all of a sudden, her lips are slicked with bright pink, notice-me gloss, and her bouncin' and behavin' hair is straight out of those sexy Herbal Essences commercials of yore. Immediately, her apathetic assault lawyer Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts) finds himself at attention. Bob, a recently disgraced pageant coach and former overweight teen, sees an opportunity to return to his former glitzy glory.
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This chance partnership leads Patty and Bob onto a 12-episode journey to rewrite their own stories and finally become the winners they never saw themselves as. Unfortunately that journey is littered with narratives that will make you uncomfortable. There are plotlines involving possibly criminal adult-child attraction, accused (and knowingly unfounded) statutory sexual assault, awkward at best racial commentary thanks to Dixie Sinclair (Irene Choi, playing an unhinged teen adopted as a baby from China by an unhinged white woman), some ham-handed gay coding, and, of course, rampant body negativity. Most of these moments are also meant to be humorous.
Plus, as The Guardian points out, the scenes of Patty giving into her insatiable hunger for food can come off as “fetishistic.” We’re meant to feel both mesmerized and disgusted while watching the teen ritualistically binge-eats shellfish and sweets. The mouth-centric title card treats Patty's smacking lips as an gluttonous maw.
This is a two-pronged problem: First of all, being plus-size and having an addiction to food are often conflated here and, secondly, it simply looks exploitative. We don’t meet someone who is plus-size simply because that’s their body type — rather than proof of some internal chaos — until the sixth episode, Insatiable’s midpoint. The late-in-the-game appearance of Dee (Ashley D Kelley), a Black, fiercely body-positive pageant girl, seems tailor-made to prove the comedy is as progressive as the new character. Yet, even Dee misses the mark.
In Dee’s introductory episode, Patty explains, “I lost 70 pounds. Now it’s my turn to get the guy.” Viewers will likely hope Dee’s response will sound something like, “You don’t need to lose 70 pounds to get the guy.” Instead, she shoots back, “Being skinny don’t mean shit if you’re ugly on the inside.” This line is proof the series is more focused on proving Patty can have a terrible life no matter her size than interrogating all the warped and dangerous ways society views women’s bodies.
While Insatiable does have a few glimmers of hope, especially towards the end, this fatal flaw suggests it’s unlikely many viewers will even get to the awaiting horror movie riffs and unexpected group sex attempts to be enjoyed. Unless audiences are up for 12 hours of mostly-hate watching, of course.
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