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AMC’s Dietland Aimed Wide and Mostly Hit Its Marks in a Chaotic First Season

on July 31, 2018, 5:00am

AMC’s new series Dietland — which just wrapped up its first season this week — could be considered a peak show of the summer. That’s not because it was particularly popular or perfectly constructed (in fact, it was neither of those things), but because it feels like an amalgam of so much of this summer’s entertainment. It’s the feminist optimism of The Bold Type meets the violent realism of Sharp Objects meets the heightened power struggles of UnREAL with a dash of The Handmaid’s Tale’s rage-filled dystopia and a touch of Sorry to Bother You’s radical, genre-bending tone. Is Dietland trying to do too much? Almost certainly. That’s also what makes the show so exciting.

Dietland tells the story of Plum Kettle (Joy Nash), an unhappy plus-sized ghostwriter for a glossy fashion magazine. As the show begins, Plum lives in our world (or at least a slightly heightened version of it), where the pressure for women to be thin and beautiful is unending and rape culture is omnipresent. Plum’s convinced that her life won’t truly begin until she achieves a slim figure through gastric bypass surgery. But Dietland quickly expands its world (and Plum’s) through two feminist forces: The hippie-ish commune of Calliope House and a feminist cabal known as “Jennifer.” Calliope House pushes for radical but peaceful self-acceptance on an individual level. Jennifer pushes for radical, violent revolution against society as a whole. (Jennifer’s manifesto is basically the #MeToo movement reimagined as a murderous rampage, rather than a journalistic investigation/social movement.) Throughout the first season, Plum is caught in the middle of all of those opposing forces, trying to figure out how to be her happiest self and — potentially — how to make the world a better place in the process.

In other words, Dietland is a female Fight Club, which isn’t just a cutesy description but an actual point of inspiration for author Sarai Walker, who wrote the novel on which the series is based. (When Plum gets a dose of self-empowerment and a makeover in the show’s seventh episode, she rocks a faux-fur coat and a Fight Club t-shirt.) Instead of just gender-flipping that Chuck Palahniuk novel turned David Fincher film, however, Dietland instead tries to explore the female experience in the same heightened manner in which Fight Club explores the masculine one.

As I wrote in my pre-air review, “Thus Dietland tackles, well, just about everything that makes up the female experience: Body image, beauty standards, thin privilege, fat acceptance, mental health, medication, religion, mother/daughter relationships, female friendships, dating, sex, sexual assault, rape culture, street harassment, and the capitalistic power structures of the beauty and fashion industries.” After watching the show’s first three episodes for that review, I noted that Dietland often seemed to be teetering on the brink of collapse, but that it was legitimately thrilling to watch the show occasionally snap into focus. That’s pretty much how I still feel, having now seen all 10 episodes of the show’s first season.

Dietland is flawed and uneven, with political and social messaging that ranges from prescient to dated. It can be hard to tell when the show is intentionally presenting characters with imperfect worldviews versus simply presenting an imperfect worldview itself (to be fair, that issue has long swirled around Fight Club as well). As Tara Ariano noted in her Vulture recaps, Dietland sometimes feels stuck in a second-wave feminist perspective, particularly about things like porn and sex work. Meanwhile, as Kelly Faircloth and Megan Reynolds dig in to this great conversation for Jezebel, the show’s exploration of body positivity also feels a few years out of date. Rather than dig into the way the body positivity movement has been co-opted by the beauty industry, Dietland presents its fictional Daisy Chain as a very early 2000s-era teen magazine. That editor Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies) is only interested in pushing a message about being thin and glam makes her an easy-to-hate antagonist, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like a true reflection of our current era of ever-present faux-feminism.

The trouble is that conversations about feminism are happening at such different speeds in such different places — from the most radical social justice corners of Tumblr to the most mainstream magazine pages — that it can be hard, if not impossible, to create a feminist show that resonates with all of those different audiences. As Faircloth and Reynolds point out, some people have been steeped in the body positivity movement for a decade while others are probably just hearing about it for the first time this year. Throughout its first season, Dietland often struggled to speak to both of those audiences with equal nuance.

At its worst, the first season of Dietland could be strange, confusing, and difficult to connect with. The third episode involves a long hallucination in which Plum imagines her would-be romantic interest Dominic (Adam Rothenberg) as a sexy tiger. It’s a bizarre tangent the show never really returns to and an example of the ways in which Dietland struggled to find its feet in its first season. But it also speaks to Dietland’s impressive ambition — both in tone and in scope. As I wrote in my initial review, “This is a female-centric series that isn’t just about the world of its female protagonist, but about the world, period.” Throughout its first season, Dietland raised questions ranging from, “What is it like for a fat woman to date?” to “What does it take for a woman to rise to the top of a male-dominated industry?” to “How would a feminist terrorist organization run its meetings?”

The upside of watching Dietland try to tackle so much of the female experience is that even if you don’t connect to the whole series, there are likely going to be a handful of moments with which you do. For every clunky conversation, there’s another that strikes a real human nerve in a way you don’t often see on TV. (And, of course, a moment one viewer considers clunky could be revelatory for another.)

One of Dietland’s strongest sequences came in its sixth episode, “Belly of the Beast”, as beauty guru Julia Smith (Tamara Tunie) performed a “magic trick” by stripping away her glamorous trappings — her wig, fake eyelashes, makeup, shapewear, and silicone breast prosthesis — to reveal her natural look (the scene also reveals that Julia has had a double mastectomy). It’s rare to see just how much effort goes into creating the glamorous aesthetic we’re so used to seeing as the norm for actors and celebrities. It feels quietly revolutionary for Dietland to showcase the work of beauty, just as it feels quietly revolutionary whenever Dietland shows off Plum’s naked body without either overly sexualizing it or making it the butt of a joke.

As imperfect as it may be, I’m incredibly glad that Dietland exists. It has scope, ambition, and an underlying anger that’s sometimes missing from TV shows about women. Most importantly, Joy Nash is a fantastic anchor for the series, beautifully portraying Plum’s emotional journey from timid ghostwriter to revolutionary. If Dietland sometimes faltered, Nash never did. Though Dietland’s first season bit off more than it could chew, its attempts to combine disparate cultural conversations into one heightened package made it consistently compelling to watch. Here’s hoping it gets a chance to continue and refine that conversation in a second season.

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