‘Dietland’ is Violent, Disruptive and Surreal. Enjoy the Ride!
Posted May 17, 2018 4:29 p.m. EDT
The most subversive moment on television this summer? It might be a cartoon credit sequence for “Dietland,” the new show from Marti Noxon that debuts on AMC on June 4.
As it begins, a fat woman struggles up a mountain molded from desserts and fairground rides. She shrinks as she climbs, shedding her shapeless black wrap for a skintight scarlet number. She’s skeletal when she crests. Then she dies.
But don’t get too depressed. “The logo is a carnival,” Noxon said during a shoot in Queens last winter. “It’s a fun house! It’s not a sad house!”
“Dietland,” based on the 2015 Sarai Walker novel of that name, is a makeover story glimpsed through a series of distorting mirrors. Plum Kettle (Joy Nash) is a 300-pound woman — “Fat,” Plum says in the pilot. “I’m allowed to say it” — who answers letters to the editor at Daisy Chain, a Cosmopolitan for the junior set. (Sample headlines: “Scarves That Slim,” “How to Use Sex to Get What You Want!”) That editor, the venomous, private-gym-toned Kitty Montgomery, is played by Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife”).
Plum thinks that her life will start as soon as she loses weight. When she’s enmeshed in a shadowy feminist conspiracy (most likely involving a terrorist cell that goes by the name of Jennifer), it starts anyway. Turns out it’s the patriarchy Plum has to lose, not the pounds.
Television has become increasingly receptive to loop-de-loop tonal shifts — from “Better Call Saul” to “Fargo” to “Good Girls” to “Barry.” But few shows demonstrate a range as extreme as “Dietland,” which wears like a lipstick laced with anthrax, ricocheting from drama to horror to satire to rom-com to revenge fantasy. It’s a sincere attempt at feminist consciousness-raising, smuggled inside a murder mystery. The sequences of Dalí-esque surrealism are the cherries on top.
“The show just feels like it visits a lot of different territories,” Noxon said during an on-set dinner she didn’t have time to finish. “And now I’m going to eat some food.” (She was pulled away a few minutes later. She wrapped the plate to go.)
Noxon, 53, who radiates the focused cheer of a pep squad captain, has rarely met a genre she couldn’t handle. In her decades in television, she has worked in most of them, with a particular interest in the roles women choose and the ones chosen for them.
She was first noticed as a writer and producer on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” leading a controversial season that sent its demon-staking heroine into a self-destructive spiral. She later created the spiky comedy “Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce” and was a co-creator of “UnREAL,” departing after the knockout first season.
Noxon discovered the “Dietland” novel while scrolling through Audible. The cover showed a cupcake fitted with a grenade pull. She thought it would be a “chick-lit novel, sort of an easy read.”
“And it’s not,” she said.
It’s not an easy watch either. It plunks Noxon in the middle of what she not-so-jokingly calls “my self-harm trilogy.” It began with her Netflix film “To the Bone,” released last year, and will continue with her adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Big Little Lies”), which comes to HBO this summer. But that chronology isn’t exactly right.
As Noxon sees it, Camille (Amy Adams), the heroine of “Sharp Objects,” an alcoholic and a cutter, is a woman who hasn’t yet acknowledged that she’s in crisis. “To the Bone” leaves Ellen (Lily Collins), the anorexic young woman at its center, poised on the edge of recovery. “Dietland” pushes past that, wondering what Plum’s life will look like once she gives up “this urge to turn all those ugly feelings on yourself,” Noxon said, “to use your body as a battleground.” It asks a question Noxon is still answering, for herself and in her work: Now what?
Only “To the Bone” is explicitly autobiographical — and then it’s only semiautobiographical, with several invented characters and scenes — but all of these projects are deeply personal. They explore and explode a fantasy that Noxon has lived with all her life, the belief that if she were only a little taller, a little prettier, then she would be loved, cherished, safe.
“Dietland” argues that if women really want love and safety, it’s the world they’ll need to change, not their bodies.That’s a big ask, but Noxon’s attitude is exuberant and encouraging rather than scolding. She’s “a feminist with a boob job,” she said. She’s not inclined to scold.
For all Noxon’s cheerleading, “Dietland” approaches female anger and violence in raw and sometimes startling ways. Women’s marches are one thing; armed revolt is another. There’s plenty of comedy here, some of it cute (there’s a sign on the Daisy Chain fridge: “DO NOT Take Kitty’s Almond Water”), some cringe-inducing, some savage. But though terrorism and its accessories are new to Noxon (when asked the type of weapons Jennifer uses, she said, “Long ones?”), the Jennifer sequences aren’t played for laughs. It’s hard to say, “You go, girl,” when girls are hurling bodies from freeway overpasses. Margulies’ Kitty is both an oppressor and a victim. She’s not a Jennifer recruit, but she’s angry, too, which Margulies finds “very refreshing.” Speaking between scenes, Margulies, 51, said, “A show like this is very freeing for those of us who feel like we’ve had to somehow stay quiet — so we don’t rock the boat or stir the mud or you know, get up in anyone’s grill or make a problem.”
Nash’s body is one of those problems, and that’s the way she likes it. “Dietland” is not the first show to center on a fat actress (fat is Nash’s preferred term, too). There’s “Fat Actress” itself, “Drop Dead Diva,” “Mike & Molly,” “This Is Us” and “Roseanne” then and now. But “Dietland” uses Nash’s body as a provocation and not as a punch line or punching bag. Revealing costumes ask audiences to confront their discomfort with women who aren’t straight size.
“I feel like it’ll make people squirm, and that gets my blood pumping,” said Nash, 37, who added that she has never dieted. “I love it. I want you to be so uncomfortable. Like if I can ruin your day by making you look at me, I’m going to make you look at me.” She added an intensifying expletive. She doesn’t know where Plum’s story will take her, but she wants for the character what she wants for herself, what any person of any size deserves: “a full life.”
Noxon doesn’t know where Plum will wind up either. “We’re not going to solve any of these things, by the way,” she said over that abbreviated dinner. “Nothing gets solved.” But she wants everyone to enjoy the curves, the twists, the free-fall thrills along the way.
But her jokes, her enthusiasm, her insta-best-friend candor, it all suggests she’s enjoying those curves and twists and free-fall thrills along the way.
“I can’t wait for you to see the rest,” she said a few weeks later, when filming had finished. “Because it really is demented.”