Sometimes a television comedy’s premise is promising, but the execution is flawed. Sometimes the cast is wonderful, but the direction is bad. Sometimes all the right elements are there, but the timing is wrong. It’s rare when everything comes together as perfectly as it does for the dark comedy “Dietland.”
The Skydance Entertainment/AMC Studios production, which premieres Monday, follows the passive, plus-sized writer Plum Kettle (Joy Nash), who works for the NYC-based fashion magazine Daisy Chain. Its offices are populated with a size 2 staff, and even they look like husky trolls next to the emaciated models that grace the magazine’s pages. Plum’s quiet life as a ghost writer for the publication’s self-absorbed editor Kitty (Julianna Margulies) is turned upside down when a radical terror group avenging the oppression of women attempts to induct her.
Three of the season’s 10 episodes were made available for review and in them we learn the underground movement is not just reacting to infuriating and inhumane beauty edicts such as shunning carbs. The extremist movement known only as “Jennifer” is a reaction to all that has made women believe they require fixing: fad diets, the sadistic fashion industry, useless beauty products, bikinis, institutionalized ageism and anger-quelling antidepressants.
“Dietland” is a wonderfully absurd exaggeration of the rage that’s driving sea change like the #MeToo movement. The Harvey Weinstein effect is satirized here, his depravity and the victim’s fury filtered through dark humor, and that dark humor woven into a quirky yet compelling drama.
Sexual predators have historically had more protections, authority and leverage than the women they prey upon. Jennifer is kidnapping, killing and dropping the bodies of rapists from the sky, literally, to kick start a revolution against the patriarchy.
It’s based on Sarai Walker’s book “Dietland,” and though the show’s creator Marti Noxon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Mad Men”) sought to obtain rights to the book years ago before #MeToo, Weinstein and #TimesUp, her efforts now appear prescient.
The predominantly female produced, written and directed series plays with topical issues of empowerment, rape culture and objectification in sharp-witted and insightful hour-long episodes. “Dietland” is the smart, funny and brutally honest missing piece between “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Big Little Lies,” and the progeny of films such as “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Thelma and Louise.”
Nash is spectacular as the non-spectacular Plum, a single woman in her 30s who spends her time watching nature shows and writing Kitty’s heartfelt responses to readers’ letters. She’s intelligent but defeated by years of fat-shaming, and perhaps some family secret that will later be revealed. Nash portrays her internal battles with skill and feeling, adding a depth and a connectivity to the show’s witty and raw commentary.
As the vain Kitty, Margulies returns to her first regular series TV role after “The Good Wife.” She’s bold, fierce and delivers some of the best lines in a show full of smart dialogue. When the perimenopausal Daisy Chain diva laments what it’s like to age as a woman in the fashion industry, she says: “Around here if you look like someone’s grandmother, you’re out!... Mark my words, I won’t be left behind!”
Following a hack of the office computers, she begins to distrust Plum and says: “Large girls pretend to be joyful and harmless. But really they’re jealous of people like me. No matter how well you treat them, they fester.”
Kitty claims to be helping women with magazine advice about how to please their man in bed, eliminate those bumps on the back of their arms, stop cutting themselves, and of course, lose weight.
Plum has struggled with the latter all her life. She’s tried every diet imaginable, including attending “Waist Watchers” meetings where they discourage “bad behavior, like eating.”
She goes unnoticed by most around her, except for leering men who make crude jokes about her size. Then Daisy Chain assistant, Leeta (Erin Darke), approaches her about using her writing skills for a real cause. She introduces Plum to Julia (Tamara Tunie), a subversive figure who works in the magazine’s beauty products storage basement dispensing remedies to desperate women, but is also deeply connected with the resistance.
She has her eye on Plum, as does detective Dominic (Adam Rothenberg), who is investigating the hack at Daisy Chain. He’s the first man to flirt with Plum in ages, but is he just using her for inside info? And then there’s the women’s collective led by the daughter of disgraced diet gurus, Verena Baptist (Robin Weigert). She wants to atone for the damage done by her parents’ bogus weight-loss religion, and also wants Plum on her side.
Plum, who narrates throughout, isn’t so sure: “Verena was the poster child for skinny entitlement,” she says. “She thinks she gets it, but she’s never been in my extra-wide shoes.”
“Dietland” is sprinkled with animated interludes, and when Plum daydreams, it often includes her staring at a svelte image of herself in a size 8 (or is it 6?) red dress. Other depictions of characters’ alter-egos, or bloated sense of self, are just as colorful. Kitty’s diva-like behavior — demeaning those around her, hiding her hideous habit of eating from the paparazzi — is the perfect delivery system for darker lines that could literally be pulled from “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“Jennifer won’t stop until they free women from oppression. And that will never happen. Men would rather destroy the world than have us rule it,” she says.
Even the strident is silly in “Dietland,” which makes this show a refreshing change of pace in deadly serious times.
Where: AMC; also SundanceTV and WE
When: 9 p.m. Monday