For much of the last decade, the leader in brilliant drama was AMC. Mad Men and Breaking Bad cemented this era as the New Golden Age, created a new standard for great drama, and led the network to six Best Drama Emmys over a seven year period. But even while both series were on the air, AMC seemed willing to submarine its position with the launching of The Walking Dead. One can’t deny it’s success — its ratings are among the highest of any TV series on the air today — but it led the network to embrace the more commercial side than critical one. Sure, there have been occasional gems — Better Call Saul and The Son — but for the most part, AMC has been embracing comic book and mindless sci-fi series rather than the great dramas that launched it into the critical stratosphere. One could almost call AMC’s series formulaic.
Until, at least potentially, last night. AMC launched a series so different you couldn’t imagine any other network doing. From Marni Nixon, the showrunner who unraveled the reality series drama on UnReal comes Dietland, a series which makes the darkness of the Lifetime series seem phonier than ‘Everlasting’.
The series is centered around Plum Kettle (Joy Nash), a morbidly obese woman who has spent her entire life trying to fit the standards of womanhood that the world seems to employ. Desperate to have surgery that will permanently alter her body, she has subsumed all of her energy into her work as a baker and answering letters for an online magazine ‘Ask Kitty’, the face of the women’s section of Austin Media. (Juliana Marguiles is a revelation, playing dumb for the first time in her career). Her life seems cemented in a routine so ordinary, even the animation involved seems uninterested.
Then she encounters Julia (Tamara Tunie, given a character with depth for the first time in nearly twenty years) the beauty expert of Austin Media, who seems to be at the center of some conspiracy to try and get women out from under the stereotypes that, well, the world seems determined to put them. Plum’s decision to help seems to be the first impulsive thing she’s ever done. And then she is brought to the attention of a book called ‘Dietland’, which seems to be the story of the ‘Baptiste Diet’, the great plan that revolutionized dieting — but may have been the code for a cult. This leads to an encounter with the heir to the ‘Baptiste Diet’ (Robin Weigert, who no one will recognize from her work on Deadwood). She offers Plum her own plan — something that angers Julia no end.
But even throughout this darkness, something far worse seems to be going on below the surface. There has been a hack into Austin Media that has alarmed the powers-that-be, if not the police. Men are being kidnapped and murdered by groups of masked vigilantes — men who seem to be sexual predators. And Plum’s narration implies that she will get involved — and it will cost her everything
‘Dietland’ plays like a cross between Ugly Betty and Mr. Robot, and in the era of the #MeToo and #Time’s Up movement, seems even more relevant than The Handmaid’s Tale. What is not clear yet is what kind of tone the series wants to set. It plays a lot of the time like satire, and other times like a thriller, but the tones don’t mesh nearly as well as they should. At this stage, I admire the series far more than I’m entertained by it, but then I’m guessing that its entire purpose is to make anybody with a Y Chromosome squirm — and even some of those with an X. But I do admire its ambition, particularly in its willing to put someone heavyset at the center of any major series these days. Does these series have lasting power? I can’t say just yet. But it’s far more ambitious than the Walking Dead retreads AMC has been turning out before.
My score: 3.5 stars.