Millions of women struggle with their diet and weight, and most likely consider it a personal battle between themselves and the scale. But what if, Dietland supposes, it’s actually a massive male-dominated conspiracy by the fashion industry to keep women in a perpetual state of insecurity and to promote rape culture? That’s the aggressive and ambitious premise behind this new series based on the successful novel by Sarai Walker. While certainly an intriguing theme, the show’s various interweaving conspiracies and plot machinations only serve to muddle its main story.
Which is a shame, because the main character of that story is plenty compelling on her own. Joy Nash is Plum Kettle, an overweight writer who travels from her apartment to “Waist Watchers” meetings, feeling invisible and unloved by the world. She has a devoted mother and best friend, but mostly Plum is in a hamster wheel of a drab existence, ghostwriting a letters column for Daisy Chain magazine editor Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies, in hilarious Devil Wears Prada mode) while she saves up to have gastric band surgery. Plum’s world is shaken up by an invitation to the magazine’s secret basement closet, where Julia (Tamara Tunie) and intern Leeta (Erin Darke) are working on some nefarious scheme, but even three episodes in, it’s not really clear what that entails. Then Plum is welcomed into the body-acceptance movement of Calliope House, led by rebellious diet movement heir Verena (Robin Weigert). Meanwhile, a mysterious organization called Jennifer is kidnapping male sexual predators, torturing them, and then dropping them out of the sky.
It’s a lot—possibly too much for viewers who haven’t read the book. Plum’s plight is easily recognizable: her awful and cringe-filled Waist Watchers meetings; her reluctance to participate in activities she loves, like baking; her tendency to put off actually living her life until her excess weight is gone. Plum is a lovely, sympathetic heroine, and her stories about the multitude of diets she’s tried, the college boy she loved, and her humiliation at grade-school kissing games are heartbreaking. Since she rejects her body, she explains, Plum lives mostly in her head; she loves herself, she maintains, but believes the whole world hates her because of how she looks. Dietland depicts her plight via some fantasy sequences and whimsical animation; the worst of these is an extended, off-putting hallucinatory episode wherein Plum goes off of her longtime antidepressants. The series also suffers when it switches abruptly (and frequently) from Plum to a bizarre Jennifer sequence (though one of Jennifer’s victims is an easily recognizable version of creepy photographer Terry Richardson).
Some of the complexity works. Margulies’ Kitty is wholly self-obsessed and takes the word “vanity” to an entirely new level. It helps that Margulies, in an unusual non-hero role, appears to having a lot of fun here, adding considerable timber to lines like “But the waist… you have to attack,” or, to Plum, “I always forget… what beautiful eyes you have,” somehow an even more condescending version of “such a pretty face.” Kitty understands that she has to fight twice as hard to stay at the top of her business empire because she’s a woman; she savvily notes that men would burn the world down “before they’d let us rule it.” Her vanity is a necessary self-preservation effort against aging—otherwise she will also turn invisible. And yet, she defends the predatory actions of the loathsome Richardson character, lamely protesting, “The lines get blurry for creatives.”
Nash’s calm plays nicely against such cartoonish bluster. She also has considerable chemistry with another enigmatic character: handsome detective Dominic, hired by Kitty to protect her publishing empire. Plum’s quiet sit-downs with Weigert’s character (there are shades of her expert turn as the psychiatrist in Big Little Lies here) offer valuable insight into the downward-spiral marriage of dieting and shame. When Tunie’s Julia points out to Plum that the way we view women of different sizes may be part of a conspiracy, instead of human nature, Plum brushes it off as outlandish. But that “self-loathing industrial complex” appears to be working too well to seem accidental. It’s a welcome subject for showrunner Marti Noxon to dive into, returning to AMC after writing and consulting on Mad Men; she explored anorexia in a recent Netflix movie, To The Bone, and characters on her shows like Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce have also discussed weight. You almost have to wonder what a Noxon series would look like that only focused on Plum becoming more body- and life-accepting as she struggles with Daisy Chain’s letters column.
But Daisy Chain is an indelible part of the world Jennifer is raging against: encouraging young girls to be their best selves, while sending the message that that version includes looking their best. What if that view was expanded past a size 4? Like Plum says, it would indeed take a revolution for that to happen. Dietland tries hard to pull that revolution off, and may actually get there eventually. But viewers will have to wade through a number of conflicting conspiracies to get there.