When I first saw a trailer for “Dietland,” I couldn’t understand the “Devil Wears Prada” meets “Fight Club” divided by “9 to 5” story it was trying to sell. But after actually seeing a few episodes of “Dietland” … well, the same confusion holds true.
Marti Noxon’s adaptation of Sarai Walker’s novel is purposefully strange and gleefully defies categorization. At first, it looks like the show will be about Plum Kettle (Joy Nash) ghostwriting for an ice queen magazine editor (Julianna Margulies) while struggling to accept herself in a world that too often tells her she’s too big to fit in or find lasting happiness.
Then it pivots into an ominous case of corporate espionage as Plum is recruited by a secretly seething coworker (Tamara Tunie) to turn on the beauty industry that’s shut women like her out. That becomes further complicated when a seemingly benign guru (Robin Weigert), whose mother used to peddle a bogus diet, brings Plum into her fold, for vague purposes that will be revealed at some point, probably. All the while, the show indulges in surreal touches like Plum’s memories taking the form of bleak animated sequences and dreams morphing into elaborate fantasies.
But “Dietland” isn’t satisfied by simply deriding the beauty industry through Plum’s weight struggles and sporadic speeches about the “dissatisfaction industrial complex.” As Plum keeps narrating this pivotal part of her life from some undefined future with a voice so wry you can hear her constant eye rolls, the bigger overarching mystery belongs to a pitch black revenge fantasy. A feminist terrorist group that collectively goes by “Jennifer” is targeting and killing men who have done women wrong, keeping the city on edge. Every so often, Jennifer peppers the skies of “Dietland” with dead men falling onto the concrete below as dire warnings.
There is a version of “Dietland” that could probably bring all these threads together in a way that underlines its palpable rage. But the show’s tone shifts so wildly from scene to scene — and sometimes even several times within a single scene — that it becomes almost impossible to grasp exactly what it’s trying to do.
Some definite upsides to “Dietland” lie in the performances. Margulies, in her first series regular role since “The Good Wife,” seizes the opportunity to play a character as different as ruthless editor Kitty with an acid bite of disdain in every sharpened line.
But Kitty isn’t the star of “Dietland”; Plum is. She forms the apparent link between every disparate storyline. Nash’s Plum is biting and smart, but is always longing for acceptance from a perpetually fat-shaming world, not to mention acceptance from herself as she avoids staring too long at her reflection lest too much eye contact with herself becomes a glare. Her journey to find and love herself becomes entwined with other people’s ideas of how to use her for their own means, with women like Julia (Tunie) and Verena (Weigert) trying to seduce her with the radical idea that self-acceptance is well within reach.
There’s also the undeniable fact that “Dietland’s” unflinching anger in the face of sexist injustice is, to say the least, timely. Even when its deliberately heightened version of our world doesn’t quite land, its tapping into women’s anger as an omnipresent threat to the status quo rings truer than ever now, as more and more alleged predators are finally being taken to task for decades of abuse. “Dietland” imagines a world in which women, after centuries of buildup, take that powder keg and decide to blow the whole thing into the sky. Come to think of it, the Jennifer subplot feels ripped from a “Good Wife” or “Good Fight” episode. It’s similarly exaggerated, ripped from the headlines, and at least somewhat self-aware that it’s often downright ridiculous.
To call “Dietland” a product of the #MeToo reckoning, however, would mean ignoring one of the main points that “Dietland” hammers home with such blunt force. As the show points out again and again — with, it must be said, a heavily female creative team behind it — women have been withstanding truly extraordinary amounts of garbage treatment from all sides for about as long as society has existed. “Dietland” wasn’t borne of a single #MeToo incident, but a steady and suffocating avalanche of them over time.
But for every moment that strikes just close enough to reality to make a pointed mark, there are about five more that feel far more scattered to the winds. “Dietland” wants to be a satire and a drama and all that lies between depending on its mood, and that determination to be everything often has it feeling more like nothing. If “Dietland” wants to be truly scathing, it would do better to streamline its fury and focus at more specific targets.
TV Review: “Dietland”
Drama series (10 episodes, 2 watched for review): AMC, Sun. June 4, 9 p.m.
Credits: Executive producers: Marti Noxon, Jacqueline Hoyt, Maria Grasso, Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Marcy Ross.