Weeks before “Insatiable” dropped on Netflix, there were petitions calling for its cancellation. The show’s trailer focused on the stark before and after life of Patty (Debby Ryan), a teen who loses 70 pounds after her jaw gets wired shut and has to re-navigate her life as a beauty queen. Many voiced their concern that this premise does not, in fact, seem to understand what it means for someone to lose that much weight that quickly, nor what it means to be fat in a world that places a premium on thinness. The show’s cast and creator Lauren Gussis insisted that “Insatiable” is, at its heart, an empowering series, and that everyone should give it a chance before writing it off completely.
Fair enough. But after watching all 12 episodes of “Insatiable’s” debut season, I can safely and confidently report that the show is much weirder than advertised — and, in many instances, much worse.
“Insatiable” tries extremely hard to throw edgy jokes at the wall, hoping that they will turn the show into a sharp satire of how our society shuns the weak — or something. But despite some late-breaking attempts to right the ship, neither the show’s punchlines nor its characters are sharp enough to transcend their clichéd foundations.
The first and most obvious problem is that the show never gets a handle on its main character, much though Ryan tries. We don’t learn a single thing about Patty as a person beyond that she has a mousy best friend (Kimmy Shields) who’s in love with her and that she embodies a bingo board’s worth of fat stereotypes. In fact, we only spend approximately two minutes in flashback with Patty at her most overweight (or as her unimaginative classmates call her, “Fatty Patty”) before Ryan sheds the wonky fat suit and becomes the aspiring pageant queen the show needs her to be, making it impossible to understand how she’s actually changed after losing the weight, if at all. (And if that all doesn’t seem bad enough, consider that the reason Patty has to get her jaw wired shut in the first place is because she got in a fistfight with a homeless man over a chocolate bar.)
Over the course of the season, the show only glancingly returns to Patty growing up overweight, having apparently been cured of all her previous habits through jaw rewiring (with the exception of one brief, late-breaking relapse deep into the season, which almost immediately gets reversed). Despite the show’s insistence that it understands Patty’s struggles with her weight, there’s nothing in “Insatiable” to suggest that it actually does. In fact, most of the show would make exactly as much sense if Patty were just an awkward teen navigating life after a particularly good makeover.
But in a somewhat surprising twist, the show’s most baffling material belongs to its adults. What that controversial trailer failed to include, for example, is that the second protagonist of “Insatiable” is pageant coach Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts), whose career takes a nosedive when furious mother Regina (Arden Myrin) falsely accuses him of molesting her daughter. Gussis might have intended this storyline — which, needless to say, is extremely poorly timed — as pitch black satire, but it lands with an astonishingly tone deaf clunk, especially after it’s revealed that Regina is the one who’s been sleeping with Bob’s teenage son. And that is only briefly called out for being the statutory rape that it is before Bob gets distracted by pageant shenanigans all over again.
As poor Bob tries to pick up the pieces of his life after the rumor mill smashes it apart, he meets Patty, a diamond in the rough just desperate enough to let him coach her. (Patty also wants to sleep with Bob, which becomes something of a recurring theme amongst the show’s entire female cast — including a surprise Beverly D’Angelo, who plays Bob’s onetime mentor.) Meanwhile, Alyssa Milano does the best she can as Bob’s long-suffering wife Coralee, while Christopher Gorham vamps as his smirking and often shirtless rival whose own daughter (Erinn Westbrook) either loves or hates pageants, depending on whether or not the episode needs her to mess with Patty.
As “Insatiable” tries to figure out what it’s actually about — Patty, Bob, Patty and Bob, self-esteem or self-delusion — it becomes messier and more confusing still. About halfway through the season, there are several attempts to shift the show from its initial “if we say offensive things, we’ll be edgy” approach to become more considerate, especially regarding crises of faith and sexuality. Its attempts to course correct evince at least trace amounts of perspective lingering around the edges. But “Insatiable” just can’t square that later, more earnest version with the original, jaw-droppingly toxic one, and so the show ends up trying to have it both ways by boomeranging between the two at whiplash speed.
Maybe, deep down, there is a decent series buried within “Insatiable.” Right now, however, it feels like a dozen different and equally bewildering shows happening all at once — and not a single one knows where its strengths might actually lie.
Drama, 60 minutes. Premieres August 10 on Netflix.
Cast: Debby Ryan, Dallas Roberts, Alyssa Milano, Christopher Gorham, Kimmy Shields, Irene Choi, Arden Myrin, Michael Provost, James Lastovic, Erinn Westbrook.
Crew: Executive producers: Lauren Gussis, Ryan Seacrest, Nina Wass, Andrea Shay, Todd Hoffman, Dennis Kim, Merrill Karpf, Andrew Fleming.