“Dietland” is a lot. There are intimate scenes of women quietly asserting their worth, and bodies falling from the sky, and a sex tiger who’s also something like a life coach. Sometimes it’s animated for a quick moment or two; some of those animated moments are fantasies, some are narrative, some underline the action or help transition between scenes. Julianna Margulies wears a gorgeous red wig and some fabulous clothes. It’s tough to tell when her character is playing dumb and when she’s actually dumb, and when she’s being intentionally cruel as opposed to being thoughtless and self-centered. Sometimes it seems like Margulies might not know, either, and sometimes I’m convinced she knows all. There’s baking and intrigue and anger and insight, and a terrific lead performance, and frustrating inconsistency and a grasp of tone that veers as wildly as a sex tiger dodging the bodies that are falling from the sky. It’s a mess.
But sometimes you watch something, and it just has the stuff. “Dietland” may be a mess, but it’s got the stuff. Adapted from the 2015 novel of the same name by Sarai Walker, Marti Noxon’s (“UnREAL”) new series for AMC does a lot of things. It does most of them pretty well, and a few extremely well, but the sheer volume of things it’s doing makes it a confusing, sometimes overwhelming experience. Yet there’s something about it that’s winning. Enthralling, even. Its rage is immensely appealing. Its desire to jump from style to style and get weird is admirable. There are better constructed shows out there, more cohesive and deftly wrought. But damn it, I like “Dietland.”
I also like the “Dietland” heroine. Alicia “Plum” Kettle (Joy Nash) got her nickname because she’s “fat,” she tells us, adding “It’s okay, I can say it.” She’s telling us this through the magic of narration, and also, apparently, from the future. She tells us about Plum’s life as her present-self goes through her day—cutting up celery sticks, baking and not indulging, dodging catcallers on the street, and answering letters-to-the-editor of Daisy Chain magazine, a slightly more grown-up and slightly less thoughtful version of Cosmogirl or Seventeen. The editor in question is Kitty Montgomery (Margulies), an almond milk-loving nightmare of a boss who has Plum ghost her responses because she wants to seem aware and well-read. Plum’s careful routine starts to come apart when she realizes she’s being followed by a mysterious young woman (Erin Darke), and eventually winds up face to face with the charismatic Julia (the terrific Tamara Tunie), who runs both the Daisy Chain beauty closet and a shadowy activist organization of some kind. Then the bodies of men—predatory men—start to literally fall from the sky.
In the three episodes screened for this review, none of those threads gets enough time and attention to really grab hold on the viewer. The same is true for a storyline that centers on Plum’s encounter with Verena Baptist (Robin Weigert), the daughter of a damaging diet plan empire who now hopes to make up for the damage her parents caused by championing and empowering women in hopes they’ll reject the poisonous demands of a patriarchal society, then helping others in turn. What does grab hold, and firmly, is the day-to-day story of Plum herself. Nash’s performance is a wonder, honest and wry, with the big, more operatic feelings tucked away beneath the surface, hidden away so well that only the odd dart of the eyes or long breath gives up the game. Nash is best when Plum struggles with warring instincts—the part of her that knows when someone is flirting with her against the part of her that knows it’s manipulative or a dead end, the part shrinks away from mistreatment against the part that knows she deserves better. The many jarring shifts of “Dietland” work perfectly when internalized by Plum and communicated by Nash, and nearly anytime she’s off screen the whole ride stars to spin a little off-kilter.
She’s not alone in giving a great performance. Weigert, Tunie, Darke, and especially Margulies are endlessly watchable, and Margulies may do a better job than anyone—Nash included—of handling the abrupt changes in style and tone Noxon employs throughout. Margulies’ performance is the most stylized in the show, but she laces it through with palpable fear and anger, and while not every Kitty Montgomery scene works, or even makes much sense, they all belong to the same strange, changing, acidic world.
The same can’t be said of the series as a whole. Noxon’s ambition is admirable, and when a scene works, it really works. Yet despite the shared cast and narrative and thematic underpinnings, rarely do the parts seem to add up to a cohesive whole. Take the Gorey-esque animated figures that pop up in Plum’s imagination. They’re a visual feast, if used a bit inconsistently, and one significance instance near the end of the pilot manages to look cool, feel right, and accomplish something specific all at once. But what those drawings come to life have to do with Plum’s other hallucinations—maybe some are just daydreams?—I have no idea, and what’s more, it’s not clear that the show does, either.
Those jarring shifts in tone and style aren’t helped by Noxon’s camerawork, either. Sometimes, it’s quietly effective—an elegant sweep into the beauty closet, a warm, intimate shot as Plum nimbly and peacefully frosts a chocolate cake, and so on. At others, it’s frustratingly flat, the camera plodding along as Plum walks down the street, perhaps mirroring her own begrudging march, but doing so in such a way that it sucks all energy out of the scene.
If there are highs and lows in the series and its production as a whole, however, there’s one area in which there are nothing but highs. I’ve not read Walker’s book (though now I’m champing at the bit to do just that), but Noxon and company’s adaptation has a ring of truth when it comes to the way the world treats women, and fat women in particular, that’s rarely seen in television or film. When “Dietland” focuses on Plum’s experiences—how she’s treated, how she has to navigate the world, how her own sense of self has been warped by external garbage, and how much of that garbage is dismissed by those who don’t face the same struggles—it becomes something assured and defiant. I’m interested in all the disparate pieces “Dietland” is juggling, but whatever happens with this shadowy organization or that one, you can rest assured that the authenticity of “Dietland” will make even the messiest moments worth watching.
Maybe that’s what the “stuff” is: authenticity, plain and simple. Maybe it’s nothing so easily defined, and is, in fact, just an unnamed but recognizable essence—just stuff. Whatever it is, “Dietland” has it. By the time that third episode comes to a close, you’ll probably be ready for more.