There are television shows that I watch, enjoy immensely, and then forget almost immediately. Then there are shows that stay with me, that give me something to chew on for days or weeks. I think AMC’s Dietland is one of those. Certainly the book Dietland is, and the TV series is fairly faithful to the spirit if not to the denouement of the book.
I just finished the TV series recently, once it came to Hulu, and I find myself equally compelled to recommend it to friends and to qualify my recommendation. It’s not perfect. A few things that made me uneasy: for example, the show seems to view sex workers as enemies rather than allies in the movement to end sexist oppression. Plum’s decision to go off her meds cold turkey is definitely made for TV and not made for human bodies. The show probably could have used a few more sensitivity readers to look at its treatment of race. If any of these things are dealbreakers for another viewer, I get it!
But look. Every show I’ve ever recommended, nearly every show I’ve ever loved, is fatphobic. In Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99–among the warmest and most humane sitcoms out there–fat bodies are mostly played for laughs or disgust. (Bless Retta for turning Donna’s spicy love life from a Season 1 joke to a series-long nuanced characterization, but that is an exception in a glut of cheap junk food jokes.) In other feel-good comedies like The Good Place and Jane the Virgin, fat bodies simply do not exist. Yet I still rave about these shows, recommend them, promote them–because fatphobia is just the price of admission if you want to watch TV. In that respect, it is extraordinary that TV series based on a flawed but likable obese woman even exists.
Apart from existing, Dietland does a lot of other things well too.
- At the beginning of the season, Plum is what fat acceptance blogs in the ‘aughts used to call a Good Fatty. She does everything that is expected of her. We see her preparing herself sad little dinners and faithfully attending the Waist Watchers meetings. We see her hating herself. Despite all her efforts, she is not losing weight–so we see her talk to doctors and Waist Watchers staff for support, but they are quick to assume that she must be doing something wrong, and have no further help to offer. It’s amazing to see this losing game depicted on television in place of the usual assumption that your body directly correlates to your habits.
- Even better: it becomes clear through these glimpses that the driving conflict of the series is not Plum’s body and how she cares for it, but that decades of being dehumanized by doctors, strangers, and well-meaning friends have left her divided from her own needs and wants.
- Plum is loved. Her mother, her best friend, and her new crew at Calliope House may not love her in exactly the way she wants or needs, but they like to spend time with Plum and want to see her thrive. I like this for two reasons. The obvious one, still revolutionary: Plum’s body is not a joke but simply part of a flawed but compelling human being who is worthy of respect and affection.
- Less obvious: despite her supportive crew, Plum is desperately lonely–and the show lets this be a complex matter, not easily solved by developing gratitude for her loved ones or simply trying to be body-positive. Sometimes people are just lonely, even though we’re surrounded by love!
- Although Plum’s body is a focal point of her loneliness and social angst, it doesn’t have to be. Other fat women on the show–from a short-lived Waist Watchers appearance by flamboyant Janice to the diverse inhabitants of Calliope House– demonstrate confidence and self-regard. Again, it’s complex: Plum’s experience of discrimination and its effects on her mental health are real and serious. But the diversity of body attitudes suggests to Plum (and to us) that self-hatred is not inevitable.
- This is the aspect of the show I discuss with friends the most: in this universe (and ours), learning to love yourself is hard. Plum is smart, eloquent, and well-read: she knows the scripts of body positivity backwards and forwards, so talk therapy alone isn’t much help to her. Even the immersion tactics don’t work at first, as Plum’s mind skips ahead to what she knows the outcome is supposed to be; “I get it and it’s stupid,” she says as she undergoes a painful makeover sequence. But there’s a wide gulf between getting it and believing it, and bridging that gulf requires work. The New Baptist Method is weird and cruel and not to be tried at home; for the purposes of storytelling, though, it forces Plum to grapple with the reality behind the words that come so easily. As another savvy customer who learns by doing, I see Plum’s struggle and think about habits that help or hinder my own journey.
- While this show dives mostly deeply into the specific oppressions that Plum faces, it doesn’t shy away from showing how women with different kinds of privilege can (unintentionally or not) hurt one another. White feminism is, rightly, the primary culprit. Kitty Montgomery is the epitome of a privileged white woman who uses the language of resistance to promote her own financial interests, but there is a stunning moment near the end where we see soft-spoken, supportive Verena striding away with a beatific smile after destroying the lives of three black women. And Plum may be clever and loving, but she does mess up–mainly by letting her own struggle blind her to anyone else’s. I think that the way this is handled on the show makes it clear that she’s in the wrong even as it invites us to sympathize with her shame and reluctance to apologize. Resolving emotional conflict is messy and not always successful in this universe.
- How can I talk about Dietland without talking about Jennifer, an anonymous cell that threatens and kills men who have committed sexual assault? For most of the series, as in the book, Jennifer’s dramatic and symbolic acts of violence form a backdrop for Plum’s journey, keeping the protagonist safely removed from the vicarious thrills of a feminist revenge fantasy. What I particularly like about this is how supporting characters demonstrate a realistic range of reactions to Jennifer’s violence: inspired, titillated, worried, unconcerned, disgusted. In particular, the men on the show get irritable: even men who aren’t at risk for being targeted for sexual harassment, like Plum’s gay friend Stephen and wish-fulfillment Good Cop Dominic, get a little jumpy and defensive. We’re seeing a fair amount of that out in the world in the #metoo era, and I find it cathartic to see onscreen.
You may have noticed that nearly all of the Things I Love about Dietland are like two things in one: Plum is loved, but lonely; she’s right, but also wrong; etc. The series is at its best when it is using its striking imagery and appealingly complex characters to tease out the nuances of misogyny and fatphobia. I’m sorry to say that the thoughtful storytelling completely falls apart by the final episode, when the show attempts to transition from bildungsroman to action sequence. I see why the show put Plum in a position to see inside the Jennifer cell, but once they got her there, it’s like they didn’t know what to do with her–and they made some shallow narrative choices that make me wonder if the showrunners already knew they weren’t coming back for a second season.
Despite that, I do want friends to watch Dietland if you’re up for it. It’s legit not going to be for everyone, but it’s a rare bird and worth discussing… as we wait to see if the upcoming series Shrill brings the “flawed but likable fat woman protagonist” count up by one.