dietland TV TV Recaps

“Dietland” Ep.1.01: “Pilot” and Ep.1.02: “Tender Belly”

I have been anticipating “Dietland” since I heard it was going to be produced and handled by Marti Noxon. I didn’t even care what it was about because I love her so much. She was brought on to my favorite show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a writer and story editor for season two and throughout her tenure on the show, she was responsible for the content of the majority of my favorite episodes. Since then I’ve followed her career as much as possible and I’m always excited when she works on something new. Next to “Dietland”, my most anticipated release of the summer is HBO’s “Sharp Objects” which she also created and will produce.

This is all a lead up to say that it was almost guaranteed I was going to love “Dietland” no matter what. But when I found out it was about a woman who gets involved with a secret cabal of women who (Spoiler alert) commit acts of vigilante justice against men, I was as sold on it as I’ve ever been for a TV show and it did not disappoint.

Full disclosure: I’ve read the book that the show is based on by Sarai Walker and although many things have already been changed I will keep book spoilers to a minimum and clearly labeled.

The pilot episode of “Dietland” opens with what will become a familiar voice over by our hero, Alicia “Plum” Kettle (Joy Nash). Plum is obese, unhappy, and in her own words never really leaves a five-block radius between her apartment, her “Waist Watchers” meetings, and the cafe where she works answering letters to the editor for a girl’s magazine called Daisy Chain. We find out many other things about Plum in the first few minutes of the show. She lives in her uncle’s apartment where he controls the rent for her, she helps out her friend Steven (Tramell Tillman) by baking for his cafe sometimes, and she’s planning to have gastric bypass surgery in seven weeks. But we also know that VoiceOver Plum is speaking from the future and has more information than we do.

The first hint of plot we get is that a mysterious girl is following Plum around, which we’ll get to later. This is followed immediately by my favorite scene in the two-part premiere. Plum is at her Waist Watchers meeting where everyone is being treated to a terrified looking thin woman complaining about how she can’t lose the last few pounds so she’ll look good naked to her husband. Plum, the other women, and I are all naturally annoyed at this perfectly thin woman who doesn’t need to lose any weight and, instead should leave her dick husband. But no one says anything until my new personal hero Janice arrives on the scene and shuts it all down.

It turns out the mantra of Waist Watchers is “people don’t come to Waist Watchers because they feel good, they come because they’re ready to feel good.” Well, Janice is not having any of that. She feels great! And she’s only at the meeting to get some help losing a few pounds because she has back pain, not because she hates herself or her body. She’s also very quick to say she gets tons of dick just the way she is. Throughout the entire exchange, Plum is in awe of Janice and because of Joy Nash’s excellent performance, you can almost see the moment Plum comes a little more alive in this scene. It was spectacular.

Peppered through the episode are a couple of interesting things. The first are short, animated sequences featuring Plum and disembodied body parts presented as food. It’s very disturbing but also a fascinating commentary on how women’s bodies are consumed by the media and the world. The second interesting thing is a little more ambiguous, getting no real attention given to it so you have to keep your eyes open. Plum does tell us that “across the country a war was starting”, but you have to be looking for the news story in the background talking about the two missing veterans who are being thrown over a freeway overpass or the news crawl on the subway car about a thirteen-year-old girl who jumped in front of a subway train after she was raped.

It’s in these moments that you can really feel a rage pulsing under the whole show. But it’s not just any rage, it’s a specifically feminine brand of anger and a feeling of frustration that’s all too familiar to most women. Both “Pilot” and “Tender Belly” have moments of levity, sadness, humor, and fear, but through all that you can almost feel the simmering fury just below the surface of each character as they’re introduced. Some have reached their breaking point and some are about to, but through it all is the rage which is one of the best things about this show. The ability to show female anger in a way that doesn’t come across as shrill or annoying is quite a feat in today’s media, but Marti Noxon manages to embody every character with their anger in a way that feels real and lived-in and how I feel when I’m angry.

I’ll be honest, a lot happens in these two episodes and if I did a full account of all of it, this recap would be pages and pages long so I’m going to hit the highlights so there’s more time for me to talk about my three favorite parts of this show (Hint: it’s Julianna Margulies, Tamara Tunie, and Robin Weigert.)

First, Plum meets a detective named Dominic who is investigating some hacking at Daisy Chain. He seems quite taken with Plum but the moment he shows any interest she’s certain it’s because he has a fat fetish. One change the show has made from the book is Plum having positive interactions with men. In the book, it seemed like men were never anything short of horrible to Plum, but it’s nice to see her have friendships and acquaintances with men that are positive and affirming.

We get a couple scenes of Plum baking during which Steven’s assistant Ben seems to flirt a little with Plum (she’s oblivious or willfully ignoring it to protect herself.) She also gets lost in the baking and cake decorating to the point where she licks a small amount of frosting off her finger and is immediately horrified because of her diet which is the saddest part of the episode.

Plum gets sent to meet Julia (Tamara Tunie) in the beauty closet in the Daisy Chain building. Julia is the first of my favorite characters and it’s probably because I watch too much “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”. Julia doesn’t explain much but she does tell Plum that she wants her to send a list of all the email addresses from the “Dear Kitty” letters that Plum answers. She won’t tell Plum what it’s for, just that she needs it. She then almost bullies Plum into letting her put makeup on her and asks what color Plum’s nipples are so she can match the blush which is hilarious and amazing and makes Plum so uncomfortable.

Plum tells Julia she has to think about the email addresses, but as the episode ends she sends back a message with all the addresses and the subject line “Fight back”. The final shot of the pilot is the autopsy of one of the men thrown from the freeway. There’s a paper in his mouth with only the name “Jennifer” written on it.

In episode two, “Tender Belly”, we get to know everyone a little bit better including my next favorite character Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies). There is a type of female character who I usually love when others don’t. My podcast partner and I call her The Unrepentant Bitch character and she’s spectacular. Other examples include Cersei Lannister (“Game of Thrones”), Amy Dunne (“Gone Girl”), and Laura Moon (“American Gods”). Kitty is a perfect example of this character. She is rich and beautiful and successful and she somehow still feels that she’s the victim. She acts in ways that serve only her at the cost of others.

Just look at the way she speaks to and treats Plum. There’s almost total disregard for her thoughts and feelings as if Plum doesn’t even register as a person to Kitty. Julianna Margulies is able to bring her to life in such a way that even though she’s completely awful you still kind of like her. I can’t wait to see how she keeps getting developed.

Before I get to my very favorite part of this show so far I want to call out the girl following Plum around, Leeta (Erin Darke). She’s a very limited presence in the novel but in the show, she gets a lot more to do. When we’re able to leave behind the first person narrative from Plum’s perspective it opens up a lot more compelling stories including the relationship between Leeta and Julia who acts as her supervisor. She also has a beautiful scene outside Plum’s house where she seems almost desperate for friendship and companionship which is no surprise given her very tenuous connection with Julia.

Finally, we reach what in my opinion is one of the finest scenes ever put on television. During her talk with Leeta, Plum is encouraged to go and meet Verena Baptist (Robin Weigert), the daughter of Eulayla Baptist who ran a fad diet program Plum belonged to as a teenager. There is a delightful sequence staged like a play that chronicles the highs and lows of Eulayla’s life and weight struggles. When she died in a car accident Verena decided to shut down the damaging program. She then set up Calliope House which is kind of a collective of women who’ve been discounted or marginalized and helps them channel their anger into something productive.

Verena sees something in Plum that she believes can be woken and used for good. Plum is not as sure and is very suspicious even after Verena offers her twenty thousand dollars if she tries things her way for a while. Not only is this one of the best written and acted scenes in the whole show, it’s also the most grounded. Just two women talking about life and what they can do to improve both their own and others. It’s a masterclass all around.

The episode ends with Plum walking home again as usual. She’s deep in thought considering Verena’s offer so she doesn’t notice Dominic the detective is following and watching her. We’re not sure why yet (maybe the emails) but I’m sure I can’t wait to find out!

“Dietland” airs on Mondays at 9/8c on AMC. Join us on Twitter for live-tweets of each episode! 

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