“They get us to pay them to tell us how broken we are. Then we pay them for the products to fix us.” That’s Julia (Tamara Tunie) concisely summing up the twisted nature of the beauty industry in Dietland, a wicked satire that also doubles as an inspirational drama, activist thriller and occasionally a tiger cosplay celebrator. That’s a lot of things to fit into one show, but if the series seems to lack direction in its opening episodes, it’s for all the right reasons: as a TV programme hungry to take on the world and put it to rights, Dietland is ready to have its cake and eat it.
The show centres around the brilliantly named Plum Kettle (Joy Nash), who works for fashion magazine Daisy Chain (also brilliantly named). She ghostwrites the replies to the mag’s advice column, doling out advice to confused, scared and upset young women across the country, all under the guise of its Editor, Kitty (Julianna Margulies). Kitty is only too happy to have someone else deal with the plebs, particularly someone who makes her sound worldly and informed – she would be well-read, she tells Plum, if only she had the time to read.
But Kitty doesn’t give two currant buns about Plum, and Plum knows it. It’s just another thing in the long pile of things that frustrates her about life as a plus-sized woman living in America. After trying every diet under the sun, she’s now looking to get her stomach stapled, something that’s encouraged by her useless, demeaning wisp of a weight-loss group leader – who makes sure to remind her to also get the skin-removal surgery afterwards.
Just by itself, the drama of a woman working for a beauty magazine dealing with pressures of body image and self-worth (and the financial costs that go with each) would make for compelling viewing. That’s particularly true when said woman is played by Joy Nash, a delightful screen presence who relishes the chance to take centre stage as a complex, often melancholic, yet always likeable lead. But this is a Marti Noxon show, and the writer who gave us UnREAL doesn’t miss a chance to combine Plum’s poignant, empowering tale with the kind of scathing criticism and witty commentary that easily veers into grotesque extremes.
And so we see Plum become embroiled in Julia’s movement to fight back against the poisonous media culture, as she asks Plum to leak the email addresses of Kitty’s letter senders to the underground campaign – a veritable treasure trove of potential recruits and volunteers who know first-hand the kind of problems Julia wants to expunge.
If you think Plum’s GDPR-esque dilemma is topical, wait until you catch wind of the spate of murders that are also going around, as a mysterious group known only as “Jennifer” begin bumping off men accused of sexual abuse and dropping their bodies (literally) all over town. This, meanwhile, brings brooding detective Dominic (Adam Rothenberg, turned up to maximum growl) into the frame, as he investigates the killings – and also sniffs around Plum for reasons that are much more personal.
A steamy cop romance, some political murders and potential infringement of people’s data privacy? Dietland has its fingers in a lot of pies, but those pies are never boring. Its ambitious script is only matched by its visuals, from animated sequences that capture Plum’s closed-loop cycle of existence in Escher-like drawings to the opening titles, which see her claw her way up a towering mountain of colourful junk food, until she falls in a heap on top. And then there’s the bit where a tiger comes out of the TV and has takeaway pizza in her living room. Yes, really.
In other hands, this would all be messy and bitty, but Noxon is a masterful judge of how to shift tones at zero notice, juggling laugh-out-laugh jokes with pithy social insights and sympathetic human drama. There’s fun in the catty Miranda Priestly-lite performance of Julianna Margulies, there’s endearing (and unsettling) affection in the stalker hired by Julia (Erin Darke) to follow Plum, and some genuine shocks in the violent dispatch of men who, we presume, deserve what was coming to them. At its heart, though, is Nash, whose dissatisfied sincerity grounds the whole thing, whether we’re watching her ramble in front of detective Dom, bake by herself (while resisting the urge to eat the icing) or take advice from dubious dieting guru Verena Baptist (Robin Weigert).
She’s cynical, but also engagingly earnest, a balance that places us firmly on her side and makes us suspicious of everyone around her. That’s partly because of the ambiguous ensemble cast, who all appear to have their own potentially shady motivations, but partly because there’s no real way of knowing where exactly this veritable buffet of plot is going. But with Noxon working from Sarai Walker’s novel, there’s promise of a concrete narrative and end goal on the table, which makes it much easier to relax and simply enjoy seeing Plum navigate these often bizarre and unpredictable waters. Coupled with a refreshing disdain for the toxic nature of modern clean-eating fads and wellness regimes and a passionate belief in body-positive messages, the result is a course that’s certainly worth a trial run. The average woman spends an hour a day on grooming, Dietland reminds us. An hour a week on this feels like a worthwhile antidote.
Dietland is available to watch online exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive weekly on Tuesdays, following their US broadcast.