Dietland Envisions a World of Female Revenge

The new dark comedy from Marti Noxon explores women’s physical and psychological pain with an intriguing, if heavy-handed, premise.

Julia (Tamara Tunie) applies makeup to Plum's (Joy Nash) face in the pilot of 'Dietland'
Julia (Tamara Tunie) applies makeup to Plum's (Joy Nash) face in the pilot of 'Dietland' (Patrick Harbron / AMC)

The 2009 black comedy Jennifer’s Body plotted the demonically possessed succubus Jennifer (Megan Fox) and her hopelessly nerdy friend Anita, more often referred to as “Needy” (Amanda Seyfried), at opposite poles of womanhood. Where Needy cowered, Jennifer pounced. The movie, told from the perspective of the institutionalized Needy, recounts the bloody series of events spurred by a rock band attempting to sacrifice Jennifer to Satan in exchange for fame. Because she wasn’t a virgin at the time, Jennifer is instead possessed by a demonic spirit; she then seduces and feeds on several men, including Needy’s boyfriend.

In a fit of manic grief, Needy kills Jennifer—and uses the powers she acquires from the fallen demon to flee the mental institution where she’s detained. Upon her escape, Needy finds and then murders the men whose lust for renown turned her friend into a monster.

Almost 10 years later, the pilot of the new show Dietland vibrates with a similarly illicit vengeance: A group of women operating under the blanket name Jennifer has begun to kill men accused of sexual assault and assorted misogynist misdeeds. After luring the men into their midst, the rogue group slaughters the offenders and then drops their bodies from the sky.

Jennifer’s escalating vigilantism catches the attention of a downtrodden serial dieter named Plum Kettle (Joy Nash), who spends her days responding to reader letters on behalf of Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies), the editor of a beauty magazine called Daisy Chain. Kitty is a prototypical villain in the editrix mode, saddling Plum with the task of responding with apolitical truisms to letters from self-loathing teens who beg “Kitty” for her wisdom of all sorts (fitting in at school, cutting their breasts with razors). Dissatisfied with her career, and with a boss who wields thinness as a weapon, Plum is eventually drawn into the mysterious underground clique of women fighting back against anything from unrealistic beauty standards to sexual abuse.

Dietland, which premiered Monday on AMC, finds creator Marti Noxon at her most comfortable: spinning unconventional stories about complicated, rage-filled women. Though Noxon told my colleague Sophie Gilbert she first optioned Dietland two years ago, when harassment and abuse were just as commonplace but far less covered, the show feels almost impossibly of the moment. Based on Sarai Walker’s book of the same name, Dietland succeeds most when examining—and granting license to—the twin specters of female resentment and fury. The storylines about assault and retribution are satisfying, if also grisly, in an era when even sustained national conversations about predation have produced precious few cases of justice.

The antiheroines of Dietland are tired of waiting; they rise, rebel, and retaliate. Noxon’s frustration with depictions of gender violence feels alive in their hands, their knives carving through a narrative that could have easily sensationalized how women harm themselves in response to external traumas. Dietland offers a kind of grotesque visual therapy—it grants female viewers the rare permission to envision a world in which their pain is taken seriously, if not by authorities or society writ large, then at least by women powerful enough to draw blood.

The show’s most intriguing thematic decisions, unfortunately, are often undercut by muddy writing about the mundane indignities women endure. The dialogue can skew heavy-handed and didactic, the primary tenor somewhere between bored college professor and newly converted feminist vlogger. When the Jennifer recruiter Julia (Tamara Tunie) tries to convince Plum to hand over the email addresses of all the girls who have written letters to Kitty, the language she deploys sounds as though it were ripped straight from Tumblr manifestos circa 2011. She excoriates Austin Media, Daisy Chain’s parent company, her pro–natural beauty pep talk also functioning as capitalist critique:

Austin Media is part of the dissatisfaction industrial complex, a hugely profitable machine. They get us to pay them to tell us how broken we are, and then we pay for the products to fix it. But we’re never fixed, because there’s always some new way we don’t please the eye of our Big Brother beholder. I say, enough! Time to change the game!

It doesn’t help that Tunie’s uncanny accent alternates between notes of British aristocracy and Southern belle. Dietland may be satirical, but these moments feel unintentionally comical.

If Tunie’s Julia is a confusing, almost parodical ringleader of the feminist #Resistance, then Joy Nash’s Plum is a sympathetic avatar of the countless women presumably brainwashed by the unholy union of women’s magazines and beauty corporations. Played by Nash with a cringeworthy sadness and a witty curiosity, Plum struggles to imagine a future for herself that doesn’t figure thinness into the equation. Her anxieties are both personal and socially inflicted, and Dietland takes great care to underscore all the ways in which Plum’s negative self-image is regularly reinforced by the fatphobic world around her. Men harass her; women condescend to her. For much of Plum’s life, no one around her has suggested that anything aside from weight loss could “fix” her. That her idol, Verena Baptist (Robin Weigert), the heiress of a weight-loss empire, encourages Plum to avoid the bypass surgery she’d imagined as her way to connect with her “inner thin person” rattles Plum to her core.

Neither Julia nor Verena has answers to Plum’s—or viewers’—most urgent questions just yet, and Dietland doesn’t offer any easily executed solutions to the problems it raises. The show is still finding its footing, and its early episodes show promise if not precision. Noxon doesn’t have the most subtle touch, and so perhaps it’s unsurprising that the show, which after all is housed largely within the offices of Daisy Chain, follows the kidnapping and murder of a lecherous photographer whom the publication had been supporting even as the allegations against him piled up. In one scene, the man’s disappearance becomes small-talk fodder—and a minor character reaches for his name, but can’t quite remember it. “What was it … Terrence?” he asks. The character is corrected soon after, but the moment still lingers. Noxon seems to want you to know exactly whom she’s talking about. It may not be the most delicate dialogue, but perhaps the time for restraint is up.