Dietland on AMC: A Review

I’ve been hearing about Dietland on AMC for months now. This mainly speaks to how large and powerful the “body positive” movement has become on social media: influencers have been promoting this show, starring Joy Nash of “A Fat Rant,” with genuine excitement about a show tackling the beauty myth with a real, actual fat lady in the lead so often and so fervently that I saw multiple Instagram posts about viewing parties. Not only was the show Relevant to Our Interests, it starred one of our own.

I haven’t actually read Dietland (sorry!) so I watched the first three episodes from the standpoint of someone who knows nothing of this story or how the plot ultimately progresses. I found it to be a creative, interesting, well-acted, hallucinatory and slightly disjointed ride. Rather than recapping the episodes, I’m going to dive into some of the characters, themes explored and moments on the show.

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Alisha “Plum” Kettle

Alisha Kettle, known as “Plum” because she is “lucious” and of course round, is a hidden woman. She works for a teen magazine called Daisy Chain, answering letters for the magazine’s Miranda Priestly-esque editor, Kitty (played by Juliana Margulies.) Plum works from home, so she’s not even a presence at her own office. When Kitty gives her an assignment to cover a plus-size fashion show at New York Fashion Week, she is told to watch it on Facebook Live, while one of Daisy Chain’s “regular girls” (read: thinner, more glamorous staffers) attends the show in person. The assignment is largely exciting to Plum because it means she’ll finally get a byline — and thereby get credit for her own writing, something she doesn’t get as Kitty’s ghostwriter. Plum wears an all-black wardrobe of shapeless sacks and hides behind a shaggy, banged bob. She is hidden, and goes to great lengths to keep herself as hidden as she possibly can.

Plum is trying to lose weight at a group called “Waist Watchers” so she can get weight loss surgery. (Her douchecanoe male surgeon tells her, annoyed, that she must lose additional weight to qualify for surgery and eat under 700 calories per day.) Like many people caught in the clutches of the diet industry, Plum has pinned her personal happiness on this surgery. She buys a red dress that she pulls out to remind herself of the possibilities that await her when she is, at long last, thin. She struggles to afford her appointments at the bariatric center, and doesn’t have the money for the follow-up cosmetic surgeries that will inevitably follow.

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The sad fat girl trope

Plum is, in many ways, the kind of fat character that people involved in body positive and fat acceptance communities loathe to see. She’s sad, she’s hopeless, she’s deferential, she silently suffers indignities like dumb boys in beanies catcalling her from a car and rude comments from custodians in the elevator at work.

When a cute ragamuffin college kid at the coffee shop she often works in takes an interest in her, she brushes it off, avoids his advances and seems to dismiss the idea that he could be interested in her. When a handsome detective hits on her, she dismisses him as a fat fetishist who will want to sleep with her in private but never own up to their relationship publicly. (Not exactly off-base, especially since he refers to her as “Chocolate Cake,” and we later find out he has a wife and kids.)

What makes Plum interesting is that she’s clearly got an empowerment arc … and she is the lead character in the show. Plum is the show’s center. Usually, the sad fat girl is relegated to the sidelines of movies and television. But Plum is not a sad sack friend of a more conventionally attractive romcom lead, or comic relief, or a tragic minor character. She’s the lead. The show is focused on her sadness, her issues with her weight, her oppression and ultimately her empowerment. In one scene, we literally enter Plum’s brain as she thinks back on a time before she realized she was fat, before she came to associate food and her body with shame. (It’s a small but gorgeous scene where we see Plum’s smiling, victorious, happy younger self.)

Like Kate Pearson on “This Is Us,” the Plum we meet at the beginning of the show is not exactly the role model the body positive community wants. (That would be Janice, the loud, proud fat woman who barges in late at a Waist Watchers meeting, declares herself a unicorn who gets plenty of dick, and storms out.) But Plum is a character with nuance, who has a lot of potential for growth. Like Kate, she’s starting off as something of a wet blanket — an empty vessel that others act upon. And, like Kate, she’s actively pursuing weight loss surgery. I’m cautiously optimistic to see where this goes, because while the body positive community often gripes at this sort of representation, it’s also where a lot of us start out, and where the Janices of the world began. So watching her transformation from a sad, weight loss-obsessed, hidden woman waiting for her life to start when she hits her goal weight to (I assume) an empowered, more Janice-like woman should be interesting. We see this kind of thing a lot in BoPo/FA circles, but it’s not something often portrayed outside of those very small media bubbles.

And Joy Nash is wonderful as Plum. (Sidenote: Did you know that Joy Nash also played Señorita Dido, the mysterious lady who hung out with The Giant under the Black Lodge and, like, manufactures the Glowing Laura Palmer Orb that gets sent to earth to take on Judy and Bob in “Twin Peaks?!” I, for one, was very excited by this.)

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Daisy Chain

So, I’ve read a few times that the Daisy Chain brand seems a little outdated, like in this piece on Jezebel. The implication is that, in an era where Teen Vogue publishes “woke” think pieces, we’re way past the era of the glossy beauty mag. But, really now … are we?! I think there’s a certain segment of women my age range (early to mid 30s) who simply don’t encounter this kind of beauty myth-mongering, but oh, it still exists, even if some companies are smart enough to package their beauty myths a little differently. Seventeen Magazine is still around, they just publish articles about #MeToo alongside their articles about prom dresses, make up and boys.

“Jennifer”

Throughout the first three episodes, there is an emerging plot line about a group called “Jennifer.” Several of the people Plum encounters, from Julia (the alternatively British and Southern woman working in the Daisy Chain beauty closet) to Leeta (the goth girl who stalks Plum through the first episode, who is Julia’s intern) to Verena (the author a book exposing the lies and abuses of the Baptist Weight Loss Plan, a group started by her parents), seems to be either recruiters, masterminds or mercenaries of Jennifer.

Here is what we know so far about Jennifer: they are abducting men, forcing them to confess to their sins and crimes against women, and then presumably killing them and dropping their bodies on the unsuspecting public (either from a plane or a very tall building). They’re also responsible for a hack at Austin Media, the company that owns Daisy Chain. The hack has Kitty spooked, and she’s working with a detective (the one who called Plum “Chocolate Cake”) to find the source of the leak. Plum is a suspect, but all she’s done thus far is send a list of the people who emailed Kitty to a secure server at Julia’s request. Jennifer has claimed responsibility for killing a Terry Richardson-esque photographer named Mallick Ferguson.

Jennifer’s mercenaries stalk their prey in grotesque crone/witch masks.

We don’t know a whole lot about Jennifer yet, but they appear to be a group of female vigilantes under the command of Verena Baptist. It appears that Jennifer will be Plum’s catalyst for empowerment.

Verena Baptist and Calliope House

Verena Baptist is the daughter of the couple that created the Baptist Weight Loss Clinic. It’s one of the many methods Plum has used to try to lose weight over the years, and we learn with no details, it almost killed her. Leeta, when she was stalking Plum, correctly surmised that Plum was a former “Baptist” because she still follows the “commandments” of the Baptist plan when she eats. (For instance, always leave food on your plate, chewing a certain number of times, etc.) Verena wrote a book (Dietland — her book exists within the book Dietland by Sarai Walker, which the show is based on) exposing that the Baptist Weight Loss plan was a lie that ended with a botched stomach stapling and a car crash. She shut down all the clinics, and has turned into an anti-diet activist of sorts.

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Verena’s house is called Calliope House, and Plum ends up there at Leeta’s suggestion. Verena tells Plum the truth about the empire her family created, and ultimately offers Plum $20,000 for participating in “the new Baptist plan,” the first step of which is Plum getting off the antidepressant she has been taking for years, called Y. Verena says the money can be used for Plum’s weight loss surgery, if that’s what she wants, and hands her a check for $20,000, to be cashed at the end of the plan.

We’re lead to believe that Calliope House is base camp for Jennifer, and that Verena is at least involved, if not the leader of the vigilantes. I’m interested to see where this goes, because as of the third episode, the vigilante group offering all of the cathartic misandry and murder and mayhem seems … well, like a cult. Which is a weird direction for the feminist vengeance in a seemingly feminist series to go — female empowerment as a cult? It’s sort of a female Project Mayhem. It would be disappointing to learn that all of the non-Kitty female characters we’ve met so far, who are appearing to help Plum, are actually recruiting her for their cult. But I’m at least intrigued enough to see where they go.

The Jennifer plot seems a little ham-handed and about a subtle as a rack of lamb to the head in the #MeToo and Time’s Up era. I hope they add a little nuance in future episodes; it feels like they’re aiming for social commentary but the effect so far is removing a splinter with a chainsaw. This is the aspect of Dietland that’s grabbing the headlines, but so far, it is also the most disappointing and confusing part of the show.

That weird tiger sequence

In episode three, Plum is detoxing from Y and things get a little bananas. A tiger comes out of her television screen and we spend about 15 minutes with Plum and the tiger (who is the married detective low-key investigating Plum in a Zoobillee Zoo get-up) just … hanging out. Ordering food, cuddling, flirting. With, you know, a man dressed as a tiger that came out of her TV.

This sequence is, presumably, to represent Plum’s reawakening now that’s she off Y. She’s flirty and confident with the tiger and then later with the detective, whom she’s called and invited over. “My skin is so soft,” she says, rolling around in her bed with her belly on display. “And there’s so much of it! Wouldn’t you like to get lost in it?” The detective excuses himself to get her a glass of water and then copies the hard drive on her laptop when she passes out.

We also see that the “tiger” deleted all of Plum’s emails and, later on, that she made multiple phone calls while hallucinating, including to her best friend from the cafe, and apparently Kitty. A lot of things happening here that will probably become important, and while I appreciate what the show was going for, this sequence just missed the mark and distracted from the story. There is a way to do absurdity, and this was just… not it.

Waist Watchers and the Baptist Weight Loss Clinic

One of the greatest things to see on Dietland was how hard the show went after weight loss programs. No one has to guess twice at the real-life counterpart to Waist Watchers. And, as a former Weight Watchers member who is still untangling the messed up ideas about food, thinness and fatness that company programmed into me, it was so satisfying to see. Seeing the weigh-in and weight loss talk from a thin coach, the group of women (all women, it’s always women) bemoaning their weight and stalled weight loss attempts, even when they are thin. (“My husband doesn’t think so,” one sad thin woman in the meeting says.)

In a time when diets are being sold to the masses as “lifestyle changes” and “wellness programs,” it’s a good reminder of where these programs have their roots. Weight Watchers is all over the internet posting about wellness and health and showing smiling, diverse faces enjoying life, and it’s easy to forget that the actual program is one where they put you on a scale each week, measure your success, make you write down everything you eat, count Points, and mete out little stickers and tokens for losing weight. In meetings, people talk about food, their tortured relationship with potato chips, developing strategies to deal with the trauma of a basket of bread being brought to your table at a restaurant, the daily panic of having to make food choices … it’s all really very depressing and about as far away from “wellness” as one can possibly get.

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This is all something we logically know but we rarely ever get to see in action, unless you actually sign up for the program and attend a meeting. Seeing in starkly portrayed in Dietland was great fun — and as much as it was satire, it’s absolutely scary how close the portrayal is to reality.

Weight loss surgery

One of the show’s most nuanced moments comes at the end of episode three. After her tiger hallucination, Plum’s mom and best friend come banging on her door, worried about her. They’ve both been critical of her decision to have weight loss surgery. Naturally, they’re worried about their daughter and friend. The surgery is risky, they reason, and Plum is beautiful as she is. They accost her again, as a united front, about weight loss surgery and Plum finally stops brushing it off with a joke.

For Plum, weight loss surgery is not about being beautiful, it’s about survival and being able to live her life without the dense miasma of her weight hanging over her head. The interesting and unique thing Dietland does is show fatphobia as a form of violence. It’s not just a sad thing that happens, or treated as mere bullying. It exists alongside sexual assault as violence against women. (Of course men experience fatphobia too, but there is no doubt that fatphobia is most often incredibly gendered and tied into the policing of women’s bodies.) For Plum, weight loss surgery feels like a chance to be free of the violence she experiences on a daily basis, the slings and arrows she walks through every time she leaves her apartment. Being thin represents being free and seen.

“The world hates me for being like this,” she says. “Every day I walk around in this skin, people look at me like I have the plague. They act like I’m a stain. They stare and laugh and yell and worst of all, they tell me I have such a pretty face. And then they lecture me on how I can fix my body, because how I am is wrong.”

Weight loss, for Plum, is not about being thin and beautiful at all. It’s about her right to exist, and not feeling the need to defend it at every turn.

This is, of course, an incredibly unfair choice Plum (and other fat women) often have to make. Choosing between dehumanization, harassment, being passed over for opportunities, feeling less-than, being unable to access competent healthcare and life-altering, major surgery (that actually kills people) is not a choice anyone should have to make. Hopefully Dietland will eventually frame weight loss surgery, Waist Watchers and the Baptist Weight Loss Clinic as part of the violence that fat women experience. Dietland is utterly unique in how it portrays fatphobia and the experience of living in a fat body — it acknowledges that it’s impossible to just trust that you’re beautiful and worthy when the world hates you and wishes you didn’t exist. It’s not something self-esteem or a love affair or a makeover can fix, because it is systemic.

Dietland went there, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here. With Marti Noxon at the helm (from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the movie “To the Bone”), I think the show could get to a truly revolutionary place.

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