About the only thing wrong with AMC’s ‘Dietland’ is the title. Although appropriate enough for the content and based on a book of the same name, I fear that it’s liable to confuse unaware viewers into assuming that the show is a Reality self-help program for women with low self-esteem, rather than a biting black comedy about that subject.
I’m sure some good marketing could clear that confusion up, but most of the network ads have been a little too coy in revealing what the show is actually about. Nevertheless, AMC is confident enough in its prospects that the network launched the series this week with a two-hour premiere followed by an additional hour-long aftershow hosted by Aisha Tyler to discuss it. I’m not sure whether the ratings will bear out, but the pilot does leave quite a lot to think about.
Joy Nash, whose most notable acting credit to date was a non-speaking role as Señorita Dido in the recent revival of ‘Twin Peaks’, stars as Alicia Kettle, better known to her friends as Plum. A plus-sized woman in an image-conscious world, Plum faces intense social pressures about her weight every day. From obnoxious harrassers on the street, to the “Waist Watchers” diet program she attends religiously, to her doctor who demands that she cut back to a starvation-level calorie intake before he’ll allow her to have weight reduction surgery, seemingly every facet of Plum’s life plies her with guilt, guilt, and more guilt, leading her to take a (presumably fictional) antidepressant called “The Y.”
It doesn’t help that Plum works at a fashion magazine aimed at teenage girls, ghost-writing the Letters to the Editor column for her boss, Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Marguiles), who’s too vapid and self-absorbed to do it herself. Kitty is a plastic nightmare, completely oblivious to how her words and actions hurt those around her. She boasts about all the important help she provides for young girls, yet can’t be bothered to pay attention to the frequently desperate cries for help those same readers send her. Plum shoulders that responsibility for her, unable to affect meaningful change on her own.
Plum feels invisible to the world most days, but that starts to change in unexpected ways seemingly out of the blue. First, she meets a flirtatious police detective named Dominic (Adam Rothenberg) in Kitty’s office lobby, there to investigate an email hacking incident. He stirs some interest in a love life that she’d long suppressed, but those brief feelings of hope may be dashed when she suspects that he’s just using her to get inside info on Kitty’s company. Next, Plum finds herself stalked by a young goth girl who follows her on the street, accosts her at her second job as a barista at a friend’s coffee shop, and even shows up in the ladies’ room at the magazine offices.
It turns out that this girl, Leeta (Erin Darke from ‘Good Girls Revolt’), works for a woman named Julia (Tamara Tunie), who operates the “Beauty Closet” in the basement of Kitty’s building. Julia supplies Kitty with makeup, perfumes and other beauty supplies, all while secretly working to undermine what she calls the “Dissatisfaction Industrial Complex” from within. Julia is a major player in a growing social movement Plum doesn’t yet understand, but senses must be both important and dangerous. She admits to being behind the email hack, and asks Plum to send her a list of all the email addresses from girls who have written letters to Kitty, so that she may “deprogram” them. Plum resists at first, afraid of losing her job, but eventually sends the list in a fit of anger at the world.
Leeta also introduces Plum to Verena Baptist (Robin Weigert), the daughter of a former weight loss guru that Plum once followed. Verena is now dedicated to dismantling her late mother’s empire of lies, and authored a book called ‘Dietland’ that exposes many of the weight loss industry’s dirty secrets. She offers Plum $20,000 to participate in something she calls the “New Baptist Plan,” an “anti-diet” the terms of which are left deliberately vague.
Whether Julia and Verena are working together or to separate goals isn’t clear yet. Julia gets very angry at Leeta for sending Plum to Verena, exposing a dark and controlling side in opposition to the warm motherly image she presents to everyone else.
Somehow, one or both of these women may also be connected to a vigilante group called “Jennifer,” responsible for kidnapping and murdering rapists and perverts. A series of cryptic flash-forwards within the episode suggest that Plum will join that group eventually.
Episode Verdict / Grade: A-
Adapted from a novel by Sarai Walker described as a “feminist revenge fantasy,” the TV version was created by Marti Noxon, a writer and producer on ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, ‘UnReal’ and other notable series. The story is loaded with important and timely themes about body image, fat-shaming, societal prejudices, sexism and much more, wrapped up with sharp wit and amusing surreal flourishes, including recurring animated sequences and a major chunk of exposition delivered as a fantasized stage play.
Joy Nash is terrific in the lead. She has a very difficult role playing a character who’s depressed without coming across as mopey or making the audience feel depressed as well. It’s a tricky balance that she pulls off very well. Julianna Margulies is playing more of a cartoon character in comparison (especially coming off seven seasons of ‘The Good Wife’), but is very amusing at it and hints at her own insecurities regarding aging.
The plotting in the premiere is a little confusing as it sows the seeds for mysteries to be explored later, but is sufficiently intriguing. This is a very promising start. ‘Dietland’ is one of the few new series to hold my attention so far this summer.
Sounds excellent. I only know Robin Weigert from ‘Deadwood’ (which I have only just seen this year, via a discounted Blu-ray set). She’s very funny as a deliberately over-the-top Calamity Jane. How does she hold up here? Does she show restraint?
Weigert has done a lot of TV. She has quite a bit of range. Her role here is pretty subdued so far, but we don’t know what she’s really up to yet.
Thanks. I should give this series a watch once it reaches our shores.