If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
It is somewhat staggering how badly “Insatiable” fumbles everything it attempts. From such a statement you might infer that this is a series of big swings, an endeavor which aims high and fails big. I want to be perfectly clear: “Insatiable” deserves no such praise, however faint. The lack of care this series has for its characters is topped only by the lack of respect it has for its viewers; its veneer of edginess almost as thoughtless as its later attempts at playing “woke.” It’s empty and cynical. It is disinterested in nuance and bored by its own conceit. It feints at exploring hot-button topics without displaying even the slightest hint of intellectual curiosity. To watch it is to embark on a tedious slog through a vacuous, mean-spirited, chaotic wasteland in which the occasional spike of outrage comes as a welcome reprieve from the tedium.
Netflix has spent some time attempting to assure potential viewers—some of whom started a petition asking for Netflix to cancel its release—that “Insatiable” isn’t a fat-shaming series (Netflix VP Cindy Holland at the Television Critics Association summer press tour: “Ultimately, the message of the show is that what is most important is that you feel comfortable in your own self.”) It is, in fact, not a fat-shaming series, though it is as thoughtless about body-shaming, body-positivity, and bodies in general as it is about most things. Instead, it’s the story of Patty (Debby Ryan) and Bob (Dallas Roberts), two people we’re alternately asked to believe are selfish assholes or noble survivors depending on what’s narratively convenient.
As the story begins, Bob, a pageant coach, is falsely accused of molesting his latest charge by her mother, an event clearly intended to be an oh-no-they-didn’t moment of dark comedy. (It, as you might expect, fails at that—and by the way, the accusing mother is also sleeping with Bob’s teenage son, something else that’s played for laughs.) Meanwhile, Patty is still Fatty Patty, a heavyset high school student bullied by her peers and unhappy with her body and the life through which it moves. Then she gets in a physical altercation with a homeless man over a chocolate bar, winds up sucking a liquid diet through a wired-shut jaw, and bibbidy bobbidy boo, she’s a pretty girl. Bob meets Patty, and each sees in the other something they need.
Those needs seem to change quite a lot. The easiest issue to identify with the execution of “Insatiable” is that the storytelling is wildly inconsistent. There are consistent targets and consistent mistakes, there are regular ties to concept of hunger in many forms, but what Bob, Patty, and the people in their orbit feel about themselves and others is handled more haphazardly than nearly anything else.
At times, Bob views Patty as a sort of surrogate daughter, a young woman in need of protection and guidance. At others, she’s a dangerous liability, a loose cannon he’s using to save his reputation. Sometimes Patty is, as the early advertising promised, a young woman hell-bent on revenge against a world that tormented her, but at other times she’s an aspiring beauty queen concerned about the stability of her immortal soul; it’s not as though those contradictions can’t exist within a character, but these don’t play as contradictions. They play as storylines selected by the throw of a dart on a wall covered with ideas in a hodgepodge of genres, tones, and levels of coherence.
An example: late in the season, Bob throws Patty a roast birthday party to try to up her popularity, and during said party, their relationship takes an unexpected turn. As a result, she returns to an unhealthy food-related habit, one of the few times that “Insatiable” shows any interest in Patty’s relationship to food or her own self-worth. The last act of that episode—the 10th in the season—is well-acted by both Ryan and Roberts; it builds nicely and lands with an almost satisfying thud. But it’s so divorced from the rest of the series that there’s no chance of real emotional impact. When actual character exploration arrives, it drags with it the endless jokes about homoeroticism and southern culture, seances and alcoholics and idiotic beauty queens (the show’s inference, not mine).
To decry the direction and design of “Insatiable” doesn’t seem particularly productive, somehow. The rot runs deep. If someone can succeed in spite of the mess, that’s impressive, but if they fail, how much can they really be blamed? Still, it’s worth noting that the directors for this series seem committed to the mess, for better or worse. “Insatiable” keeps telling us how badly it wants to be off-beat and edgy, one Wiener Taco reference at a time. There are twinkly sounds and suggestive cuts, broad strokes sight gags and plenty of chaotic energy. It’s the right approach for what’s being offered, but that doesn’t make it appealing or all that effective.
If the directors take the writing and run with it, the actors do the same, but the sole saving grace of “Insatiable” is that they occasionally bring something approaching complexity to the proceedings. Roberts, who gets handed some of the show’s shallowest, worst jokes and least developed character beats, somehow approaches Bob with empathy; while Alyssa Milano is given little to do as his wife, Coralee, she might come closest to striking an appropriate balance between stylized dark comedy and character drama. But it’s Kimmy Shields who’s the series standout, taking the thankless role of Patty’s repressed best friend Nonnie and lending her a dry comic sensibility and a heady streak of genuine feeling.
That’s precisely why Shields, Milano, and Roberts, stand out. What “Insatiable” lacks most of all is anything genuine, and when the actors fight their way into such moments, it’s possible to see what “Insatiable” could be if all involved approached it with such thought and care. But this is a series much more interested in double entendres and shallow platitudes—sometimes in close proximity—than it ever is in story, character, or feeling.
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