Years ago, I was meeting a friend for dinner. I was at what I would describe as Peak Amy. I was at my thinnest. My skin was clear. My hair shiny. I even had on a cute outfit. But it was hot (so hot) in Boston that day, and by the time we arrived at the restaurant I was a sweaty mess. The other woman was tall, glamourous and apparently doesn’t perspire, because she was in pristine, cool condition. I instantly felt awful. My confidence deflated. It was nothing the other woman had done. It was years of society, ads, pop culture that put such a premium on a woman’s appearance. Entire industries have been built around creams that will make us look younger, fad diets that will make us thinner, products that will make our hair fuller and shinier. I could go on (and on and on). It’s a broad generalization, but also a statement of truth that men simply don’t worry about their appearance as much as women do.
Dietland lays its foundation on this idea—the fundamental difference in the way women and men navigate society. Plum Kettle (a fabulous Joy Nash) is an overweight woman living in New York City. She’s trying to lose enough weight to have lap band surgery while ghost writing letters to the editor for Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies), a glamorous executive at Austen Media who values beauty, thinness and youth above all else.
Elsewhere on the series, a radical group that calls themselves “Jennifer” is murdering men accused of rape and dropping them from the sky. That makes the 10-episode series feel particularly relevant in the #MeToo era. (The fact that Dietland is based on Sarai Walker’s 2015 novel of the same name drives home its own point about how long powerful men have been protected from punishment for the crimes they commit against women.) Plum also meets Verena Baptist (Robin Weigert), the daughter of a woman who promoted the unhealthy and duplicitous Baptist Method of dieting and is now trying to atone for her parents’ sins. Verena runs Calliope House and is devoted to helping Plum be happy with herself and her life without radical surgeries or diets. “I wish you could see yourself like most people do,” she tells Plum.
As you can tell by the above, that’s a lot going on in one TV show. In the three episodes made available for review, there’s also a hallucination scene involving a man dressed like a tiger, regular appearances from sad animated versions of Plum, and elaborate scenes that bring flashbacks to life in, shall we say… non-traditional ways. Like the book, the TV show defies categorization.
The series is subversively funny. When Plum attends a Waist Watchers meeting, her group leader says, “It can be hard to say goodbye to a bad habit like eating” and, like the novel, the show is clearly angry about all the crap women have to put up with. Julia (Tamara Tunie), the manager of the Beauty Closet at Austen Media, laments how many skin care products are targeted at women, saying things like, “That’s six layers of shit on your face before you walk out the door” and, “We pay for the products to fix it but we’ve never been fixed.”
The cast is fantastic. Margulies, much missed as a regular TV presence since The Good Wife went off the air, is so much fun to watch as she delivers delicious, nonsensical bon mots like “Being a member of the idle rich is worse than poverty” and, “You have to be absolutely fanatical to stay under a size two.” When she’s secretly videotaped sitting at a bar with Julia, Kitty worries not about what might have been overheard but more that someone saw her eating chips. “Optics, Julia. Optics,” she laments. But Kitty is also a product of society that makes it hard for women to be successful in a corporate environment. “Men would rather destroy the world than let us rule it,” she says.
Adam Rothenberg brings a rugged charm as NYPD Detective Dominic O’Shea, who may be more mysterious than he appears. But Nash is the real discovery here. Plum is so relatable as she brings women’s insecurities to the forefront. Like all of us, she makes questionable decisions that may not be in her best interest and struggles to see herself the way the people who love her see her. Nash is also the glue that holds the show’s three distinct plots together. Without her, the series would seem even more confusing.
From executive producer Marti Noxon (UnREAL and this summer’s Sharp Objects), Dietland’s biggest hindrance is that it often comes across as preachy. As if, at times, Noxon and her fellow producers and writers forgot that the show’s primary purpose should be to entertain viewers, not to lecture them. Walker’s book could have that feel, too, but on the page the shifts in tone and the juggling of the disparate storylines didn’t come across as clunky.
But what is this era of TV for if not to challenge conventions and the traditional ways of telling stories? Dietland may not be for everyone’s palate, but it deserves a seat at the table.
Dietland premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on AMC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .