For those who (like me) haven’t read Sarai Walker’s book Dietland, it was a little tough to get a sense of AMC’s adaptation just from its trailers. Is it about the sins of the fashion industry, the woes of weight loss, or a revenge fantasy centered around women taking the vigilante option against abusive men who have otherwise gone unpunished? As of its first three episodes, it’s a little bit of all of those things, and yet, no one thing in particular. Most disappointingly, in service of wanting to be a subversive comedy, it shies away from its best trait: sincerity.
Dietland, which comes from UnREAL’s Marti Noxon, stars Joy Nash as Alicia “Plum” Kettle, an overweight woman who works for a fashion magazine called Daisy Chain, acting as ghostwriter for the Editor-in-Chief Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies). Plum answers letters to the editor, making her boss sound smart, sophisticated and worldly, almost none of which describes the actual Kitty, although her personality traits do fluctuate. Kitty starts off as ditzy and a little dark, but seems to quickly morph into a calculating, woke feminist (albeit a self-interested one) who wants women to rule the world.
There’s a tiny bit of Devil Wears Prada here, but it’s unclear if Dietland is making fun of Kitty or just the industry that she props up. It’s an industry that is also under attack by a mysterious person or group called “Jennifer.” Jennifer is, essentially, a murderous cabal that has been targeting men associated with the media conglomerate that owns Daisy Chain, though Kitty wonders if she might also be in the sites of these killers.
The truth is that none of this plotting really matters, at least, not yet. The heart and soul of series is Plum. Nash has a natural, down-to-Earth presence onscreen, one that’s exceptionally charming. She’s quick to smile, even though Plum’s true vision of herself (one that appears in animated form) is a dark, sad-eyed soul. Plum lives alone and keeps her world small, never at ease with her surroundings as she both expects and attempts to avoid confrontations with strangers about her weight. Some men catcall her on the street, some women tell her she has a “cute face” before explaining how she should fix her body. She’s never sure of any man who flirts with her is genuinely interested, or just sees her as a walking fetish.
The first few episodes of the series give insights into Plum’s struggles with her weight over the years, and her many attempts at a variety of diets. The only one that she saw results from was a cult-like group called the Baptist method, until the daughter of founder eventually closed all of the clinics, which she saw as being harmful. That daughter, Verena (Robin Weigert) has started another organization of sorts (and potentially of radicals) called Calliope House, which Plum soon becomes involved in. Verena and her troupe are likely connected to Jennifer, but they’ve also stalked and seduced Plum to join them because of her access to Kitty and her powerful platform she has to speak to young to women.
There’s an intense sincerity, laced with politics (harkening to current movements like #MeToo) to Dietland, but the series also wants to be a comedy with sharp edges. However, those tones act as opposing forces, rather than complementary ones, making Dietland something of a jarring viewing experience. The series also tosses in animation and surrealism to only moderately successful effect, often letting scenes linger for too long, filling time for a story that is heavy on plot and conspiracy, and light on character connections.
And yet, I return to Nash here as the show’s saving grace. Plum is both funny and sincere, and Nash always strikes the right tone even when other aspects of the series let her down. Grounded storylines like Plum deciding to get embroiled in yet another diet scheme, going off of her antidepressants cold-turkey, and being interested in a handsome detective (Adam Rothenberg) while unsure of his intentions, are all really engaging storylines. Her relationship with her friend Steven (Tramell Tillman), who runs the coffee shop where she sometimes works and more often hangs out, is a sweet one, as is the genuine interest that barista Ben (Will Seefried) shows her. But Dietland too often pushes that aside to focus on the more outrageous elements of its story relating to Jennifer, Calliope House, and Daisy Chain. There are also too many fourth-wall-breaking and ham-fisted inclusions to the writing that are as nuanced as the bodies of Jennifer’s victims’ falling from the sky onto tailgates and brunch patios.
Dietland’s scattershot approach to plotting and its desire to be a quirky, dark comedy rather than lean in to its more sincere moments (and the treasure that it have in Nash) leave it as a missed opportunity. Even Kitty, who is often lampooned or ignored, has some interesting and very valid character moments, particularly in her frenemy-esque relationship with a news anchor (Rowena King), that the show overlooks in favor of pushing too much plot forward too quickly. Who Kitty is, what the revolution is, what Plum wants in her life, or even what the show wants to be remain as mysteries. Maybe Dietland doesn’t trust its viewers to stay interested without instant twists and gimmicks, but that’s a mistake. It provides empty calories when what we need is a nourishing TV meal.
Dietland premieres Monday, June 4th on AMC