Some series wait to show us their cards, unspooling over several hours until they get to the point. Dietland waits all of seven minutes. “Screw this ass sucking crap. I came here to get help losing weight because I have back problems, not because I hate my body!” a woman declares to a weight loss support group. She’s dressed in three separate patterns, has killer eyeshadow, and is not the protagonist. She’s essentially a fairy godmother of fatness, speaking the truths the heroine doesn’t know how to yet. “I am a unicorn. I am a goddess. And,” she adds on her way out the door, “I get more hot dick than I can handle.”
Dietland, the AMC drama adapted from Sarai Walker’s novel of the same name by Unreal’s Marti Noxon, is certainly heavy-handed. This is a feminist awakening–cum–revenge story in which a lecherous fashion photographer is summarily executed and shoved out of a plane by Episode 2. To miss this series’s lessons about body image, cultural conditioning, and the patriarchy, you’d have to be as oblivious as Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies), the villainous fashion editor who makes impassioned statements like “Daisy Chain’s cover will be ‘30 Days to Sexy: Products for Every Problem,’ end of discussion!” with zero sense of irony.
But subtlety can be overrated, and Dietland’s brazen messaging is a cornerstone of its charm as pulpy, propulsive summer TV. There’s no shortage of feminist-inflected, or just plain female, stories on television right now; the Emmys’ reigning Outstanding Drama is a dystopia built upon the systematic abuse of women. Yet there’s a useful contrast to be found between Dietland and The Handmaid’s Tale, currently airing its second season as Dietland debuts its first. Both series are based on preexisting stories (The Handmaid’s Tale from 1985, Dietland from 2015) that were nonetheless flooded with accolades for “timeliness” upon their release (The Handmaid’s Tale in the aftermath of the 2016 election, Dietland in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements). Both series are unabashedly ideological. One series, however, has hit as-yet-insurmountable obstacles in its attempt to turn a wake-up call into a pre-bedtime binge watch. The other feels like a very different approach to issue-centric TV—one that’s satirical as well as argumentative, finding as much to mock in its oppressors as to fear about them. Dietland doesn’t like to show when it can tell through a hot-pink megaphone, but it has a strange blend of acidity and absurdity that saves it from its own excesses.
Dietland is narrated by heroine Alicia “Plum” Kettle (Joy Nash), a self-loathing, frustrated writer who makes a living answering letters to the editor on Kitty’s behalf. The gig puts Plum directly in conversation with the forces that drive her to regular “Waist Watchers” meetings in the hopes of becoming an imaginary version of herself who’s healthier and happier—who goes by “Alicia” instead of a nickname implicitly linked to her size. Plum is not yet, in the modern parlance, woke to the feminist line of thinking when it comes to body positivity (though the future version of her who provides Dietland’s voice-over is). Instead, she subscribes to the misguided belief that a magical number of laboriously shed pounds will allow Plum to start living her “real” life, one in which she’s desired and self-satisfied.
Dietland illustrates this complex with a ghostly vision of Alicia haunting Plum’s everyday life, one of the show’s many visual flourishes. The animated opening credits show a woman starving herself as she scales a mountain of feminine expectations, only to perish before she can reach the summit. (Again: not subtle!) In the third episode, Plum goes cold turkey on antidepressants, an ill-advised stunt that causes her to hallucinate, and have sex with, a humanoid tiger. Dietland’s ample style serves a purpose: blowing up otherwise mundane problems into the stuff of prime-time popcorn fare. Jargon like “media-induced inferiority complexes” becomes “Julianna Margulies snootily demanding a green juice while dictating fashion coverage,” while the relationship between women’s weight and social worth is distilled into a 30-second cartoon.
Plum’s status quo is interrupted by two potentially linked developments. In Plum’s personal life, she comes into contact with Verena Baptist (Robin Weigert), the daughter of a deprivation diet–shilling extremist who uses her ill-gotten inherited fortune to deprogram women of various nonconforming body types through a charity called Calliope House. In the larger world, a vigilante group known as “Jennifer” is taking extreme steps to dismantle the patriarchy: killing rapists, hacking Kitty and Plum’s employer Austen Media, striking fear into the hearts of men. Jennifer is branded a terrorist group by the powers that be, but sympathizers like Plum aren’t so sure. Kitty, a vain and vicious striver who once paid the predatory photographer’s legal fees, certainly isn’t helping the vulnerable young women who write to her asking for help with self-harm and eating disorders. Maybe Jennifer can.
Jennifer provides Dietland’s most obvious link to the zeitgeist, with images of women rising up echoing the (much lower body count) headlines about women confronting their abusers in real life. In one scene, a catcaller in a bodega is chased away by a spontaneous alliance of female patrons; in another, a private eye assisting Austen Media finds himself discomfited by the leers of women on the street. Both scenarios, it’s implied, are a direct result of Jennifer’s actions bleeding into the collective consciousness. The group thus infuses Dietland with a twisted sense of optimism; this series isn’t a worst-case scenario, or even a call to action. It’s an insouciant alternate universe where someone is finally offering in-your-face solutions, one corpse crashing into an undressed salad at a time. Dietland, in many ways, is an outright fantasy: What if feminists could infiltrate the magazines influencing young girls by planting sleeper agents in their beauty closets? And a bit closer to reality: What if women took the drastic action the criminal justice system won’t?
But it’s in the smaller moments that Dietland’s smartest insights lie. The show mercifully avoids the noxious trap of telling fat people their problems lie with their own unhealthy thought patterns rather than with the world that shapes them. “I don’t hate myself. The world hates me for being like this,” Plum rebukes Verena. “They act like I’m a stain.” In the second episode, Dietland flashes back to the last time Plum had an uncomplicated, purely joyous response to food, early in her childhood; it’s one of the more poignant illustrations of the shame prison most women spend their lives trapped inside of I’ve ever seen on TV. As for Kitty, her relationship with radical feminism isn’t purely antagonistic. Recognizing an opportunity, she moves to print Jennifer’s manifesto across Austen titles, a heightened version of the sometimes uncomfortable relationship between feminism and the many women’s media properties that have rebranded in recent years to adapt to, or possibly co-opt, it.
Too many thesis statements and a show can backslide into sermonizing. Dietland works because it slips these observations into a briskly entertaining story that blends seamlessly with its themes rather than acting at cross-purposes with them. It’s tempting to compare the effect to those kid-food recipes that spike brownies with spinach, but Dietland is more akin to cough drops you chew even when you aren’t sick, just because you like how they taste. Noxon and her collaborators aren’t discreet about their beliefs, nor are they trying to be. They’ve just crafted a compelling narrative that incorporates them. Fittingly for a show about saying “fuck it” to beauty standards, Dietland has its cake and eats it, too.