‘Dietland’ is no Fad – the Beauty Industry Comes Under Fire in this Quirky, Thought-provoking Drama

Dietland is the new series from Marti Noxon, the co-creator behind AMC’s critically acclaimed Unreal. It stars Joy Nash (Twin Peaks, The Mindy Project) as the improbably named Plum Kettle – Plum is actually a nickname because she’s round and succulent. In other words (her words) fat. Not that she wants to stay that way. Plum is desperately trying to lose weight in order to be deemed physically viable for stomach stapling surgery. She’s tried every fad diet on the market and now believes that this is the only way she’ll achieve the svelte physique she feels she needs to be happy. Plum makes her living working for the stick-thin, high-powered Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies), the editor of a fashion magazine called Daisy Chain; it is her job to ghost-write answers to letters addressed to “Dear Kitty,” from women seeking guidance. But when the somewhat subversive quality of Plum’s advice is noted by interested observers, she finds herself drawn into a shady and possibly dangerous underworld that challenges the male dominated status quo.

Right from the start Dietland manages to be an intriguing, relevant and lacerating piece of television. It’s also, one should point out, highly entertaining. The opening episode begins with a montage of women who have written ‘Dear Kitty’ letters for Plum to answer. One woman cuts her breasts with a razor blade and says that it hurts, but feels good too. Another woman asks whether it’s okay that her boyfriend forces her to have sex. And so it goes on. In a very direct way Dietland quickly taps into the surging tide of discontent about gender inequality, and society’s subtle (and not so subtle) oppression of women that is daily in the media. It’s powerful, arresting stuff.

Plum, however, has issues of her own. She is desperate to lose weight so that she can finally be thin and therefore loved. She attends Waist Watcher’s classes, which seem designed to eat away at her self-esteem as much as her waist-line, teaching her that it’s appropriate for her to ashamed of her size. It’s here that Dietland really comes into its own. One might easily presume that the show is going to become the story of an ugly duckling who learns to love herself. But in fact, after speaking with a more enlightened personal guru, played by the incomparable Robin Weigert, Plum’s voice-over states that she doesn’t particularly want to accept herself and become a happy cheese-eating fatty. In Dietland there are no easy, life-affirming answers, and the show provides a welcome degree of nuance to a tricky subject.

Thankfully, Dietland also makes for an enticing thriller of sorts. Men are being kidnapped and murdered. Nasty men. Weinstein types who prey on women from a position of power. The show gradually develops an almost Fight-Club feel as Plum finds herself enmeshed in a conspiracy. Albeit, in this club women are more likely to have perfectly toned blusher applied than be given a black-eye and a few loose teeth. Plum’s voice over, which she states comes from some point in the future, where she’s still fat, only adds to the mystery, and gives one the sense that great events are on the horizon. This is a show that makes you want to watch it right to the end.

Obviously, the issues dealt with in Dietland will resonate most strongly with women, but the conversations that this show will doubtless inspire are relevant to everybody. In one stand-out scene, the head of Daisy Chain’s makeup department, played with considerable aplomb by Tamara Tunie, asks the question, who is more oppressed, a woman covered from head-to-toe with a burka, or a woman plastered on the front of a magazine in a bikini? She also points out the exploitative catch 22 of the beauty industry, which tells women they aren’t good enough, then sells them the products that will bring them up to the standard that they’ve set. It’s profound stuff, and provides valuable food for thought to men and women. It certainly opened this – male – critic’s eyes.

Despite the significance of the subject matter, the overall tone of Dietland is fairly light and entertaining, with plenty of simple, human moments to enjoy. As one would expect, Marti Noxon’s writing is witty, naturalistic, and filled with a host beautifully drawn characters. Most notably Plum herself, who lacks self-esteem and is sexually muted by her medication, but is also charming, funny, more intelligent than she knows, and a kick-ass baker. She is also a loyal friend, and her interactions with Steven (played with an easy likability by accomplished theatre actor Tramell Tillman), the owner of her local bakery, are among the show’s most enjoyable moments. Dietland also has a fun, subversive visual style and uses mock theatrical effects and animation to deliver sections of back story.

Joy Nash, who plays Plum, is more than equal to the task of portraying such a complex, downbeat character. With material of this kind it would be easy for an actor to fall into the trap of overplaying and begging the audience to support Plum, the plucky overweight girl with a heart of gold. But Nash is better than that, and delivers a perfectly judged performance which is also a masterclass of layered acting. We can see Plum’s eagerness to please others, which is a method that she uses to paper over her lack of self-esteem; we can see her natural warmth and honesty, which is replaced, when needs be, by a veneer of smiling acceptance as she is subtly insulted, mistreated and dismissed by her boss; and we can see her clear-eyed intelligence, which somehow also convinces her that she’s worthless so long as she’s fat. Nash manages to do all of this and still makes Plum into an effortlessly engaging and likeable character, who is a pleasure to spend time with. A neat trick.

Julianna Magulies, who plays Kitty with a surface pleasantry and a deep undercurrent of meanness, is Plum’s perfect foil, a middle-aged woman so determined not to grow irrelevant that she talks about attacking her stomach to remain slim. Margulies, in what is an archetypical bitch-boss role, manages to find the sweet-spot between severe and sympathetic, as one realises that she is in fact herself a victim of the beauty industry.

Dietland is a thought-provoking and entertaining new show, that hits several hot-button issues in a quirky, one might even say unique way.

4.5 / 5

Dietland will be available on Amazon Prime Video from June 5th 2018.

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