We are not in the business of judging a book solely by its cover, nor a film or TV series by the trailer (and when we do weigh in on the marketing, it is after the fact). No, we make the journey—sometimes a sprint, sometimes a slog—from cover to cover, opening credits to stinger, cold open to epilogue to offer some thoughtful analysis paired with an opinion on whatever culture we’ve just consumed. That’s the job, even when you see a petition to cancel a show before the screeners hit your inbox (in some cases, precisely because a property has received preemptive backlash). And that job is the only reason anyone ever will or should watch all 12 episodes of Insatiable, a new Netflix series so transparent in its efforts to push buttons that by the time a second false claim of sexual assault rolls out—which is what happens in the premiere episode—your only question will be why it took so long.
It didn’t have to be like this. When series creator Lauren Gussis, a former writer and producer on Once Upon A Time and Dexter, defended her “revenge of the [formerly fat] nerd” premise, she explained that it was informed by her own adolescence. Gussis wrote on her social media pages about being bullied as a teen and developing an eating disorder, and how she is still not “comfortable in [her] own skin.” There’s a lot to unpack there, especially if your actual intention is to satirize beauty standards and promote body acceptance. But neither of those goals is evident in Insatiable, which would rather jam its star, Debby Ryan, into a fat suit in 20-freakin’-18 for the cursory “before” in this tale of dubious transformation. Thankfully (and that’s the only time you’ll see that word in this review), the scenes in which Ryan lurches around in padding as “Fatty Patty” are limited to the premiere and a handful of flashbacks, but this just raises another issue. How can you have a show that aims to demonstrate how long and ongoing the journey to self-acceptance is if we spend most of our time with the conventionally attractive Patty, who, for the most part, behaves like a petulant asshole?
There’s certainly room for unlikable female leads, even if, more often than not, that’s just code for complicated women. At this very moment, Amy Adams and Joy Nash, respectively, are doing exceptional work on shows like Sharp Objects and Dietland, which also tap into female rage and its manifestation (and sublimation). Gussis’ objective for Insatiable even echoes some of what Gillian Flynn has written about putting the spotlight on the violence wrought by women. True to its name, though, Insatiable widens the scope to include self-centered parents of all kinds: Patty’s mother becomes jealous of her makeover (which is nothing compared to abandoning her daughter twice in the first season), while the other pillars of the Masonville, Georgia community engage in blackmail, cheating, and statutory rape. But Insatiable has neither show’s insight, dark humor, or even just capable writing. Dietland’s heavy-handed voice-overs, however, get a run for their money as Gussis’ series spends a lot of time in the heads of Patty and her pageant coach, Bob (Dallas Roberts), a lawyer who’s persona non grata on the beauty circuit because—titter—the mother of one of his former client’s accused him of molesting her daughter.
For no other reasons than to move the plot forward and make viewers uncomfortable, the newly thin Patty throws herself into the competitive world of beauty pageants, and at Bob as often as possible. She’s far from the only teenager who attempts to seduce the disgraced lawyer, whose wife, Coralee (Alyssa Milano), is panting after a different Bob (Christopher Gorham). There isn’t an inappropriate relationship this show doesn’t pursue or attempt to present as commentary on… something. But any message about the objectification of women or how our culture fetishizes youth gets lost in the onslaught of uninspired innuendo and stale stereotypes: Asian men aren’t sexual! You’ll always know a closeted gay man by his good taste! Insatiable purports to be satire, playing every bit of offensive dialogue and questionable storyline for laughs, yet none of it is funny. In fact, the humor is so scarce that the term “dramedy”—a portmanteau that’s all the rage, especially on Netflix, where every other show blurs that line—is a misnomer because there’s very little comedy to offset the soap-operatic drama.
Insatiable was originally shopped to The CW, which had the good sense to turn down this “Drop Dead Gorgeous by way of Vice Principals” knockoff. Because where Gossip Girl took some time to go off the rails, Insatiable starts off nowhere near the train yard. Every time it looks like the show is settling on a format or reaching a poignant point on body dysmorphia, another tryst or slight occurs to undermine any character growth. Even Patty, who’s the lead character, has to swear revenge multiple times because she keeps getting distracted by all the hot guys (and girls) who approach her. Bob teaches Patty that “skinny is magic,” but Insatiable’s exploration of that idea is purely superficial. There’s so much to be said about appearances, which are deemed acceptable, and the lengths to which we go to maintain them. Our needs take on many forms—hunger, lust, ambition, addiction—which are all nodded to here, but never interrogated. To its (limited) credit, Insatiable’s pairing of Bob and Patty makes some sense; they were both tormented by their peers for being fat. But rather than delve into the psychological effects of bullying, Insatiable, like its lead character, just relishes the chance to tear others down. At the risk of engaging in the same kind of trash talk, if you’re eager for a comedy about body acceptance, skip Insatiable and watch Mad Fat Diary instead.