If only the worst thing about Netflix’s Insatiable were its lazy portrayals of fat people, or its tone-deaf deployment of sexual assault and abuse as comedy, or its embrace of racist tropes, or its portrayals of people with southern accents as dumb hicks, or its white-hot conviction that same-sex attraction is either inherently hilarious or a teaching moment.
Oh, if only.
Don’t misunderstand: It deserves every word of the early petitioning after its trailer was released about how its fat-suit yuks come cheaply and at the expense of the already maligned. But the show on the whole — and I know, because I fruitlessly watched all 12 episodes like I was running deeper and deeper into a burning building in search of a swimming pool that would never materialize — is more to be puzzled over than despised. This is the purest evidence yet that Netflix has plenty of seasons of Friends and a lot of cute avatar options, but no quality control.
No, my friends, Netflix is a big old stuff bucket. And when the stuff poured from the bucket is good, it’s not because it needed to be.
Insatiable begins with a fat 17-year-old named Patty (Patty was not a popular name in 2001, but it rhymes with “Fatty,” so), who suddenly loses 70 pounds in three months. “How?” you might ask. And I would say, “Well, naturally, it was because she had her jaw wired shut.” Here, you might furrow your brow and say, “Why was her jaw wired shut?” And I would say, “Because she was punched by a homeless man!” If you are not already doubled over with the sheer hilarity of it, you might say, “Why did a homeless man punch her?” And I would say, “Because she punched him first!”
Now here, you might reasonably ask me why Patty punched a homeless man, and I would warn you that once you heard the answer, you would feel the plunge of your once-vibrant soul into the depths of this very bad idea — the first sign that no matter how bad you have heard that Insatiable is, no matter how bad the petitions have concluded that it is, it is worse.
Because the answer to why Patty punched a homeless man is: He tried to steal her candy bar. Protecting candy to the point of violence is sort of the “jump to light speed” of ridiculing your fat characters — it shorthands their shameful appetites, their lack of rationality and discipline, their single-minded prey drive, and their infantile attachment to foods mostly associated with children. This is nothing more or less than the fastest (and, let me add, the most clichéd) way to dehumanize a teenage girl along this particular axis. It’s the padded Jenna Maroney growling “ME WANT FOOOOOD!” on 30 Rock, if that were intended to develop a character you’d later be expected to really care about.
Since all but the first few minutes of Patty’s story involve Patty as a thin girl, these early scenes show star Debby Ryan, a very thin actress, in a fat suit. What that means is that her fat body is just a thin girl galumphing around strapped up in pillows she’s not used to, meaning she can only appear graceless and unformed, like a guy on a street corner in a hot dog costume. To the degree a real fat girl might have a sway to her hips, a comfort in her stance, or a center of gravity she’s learned to navigate, you’ll never get a look at it this way.
Given that Patty loses all this weight via having her jaw wired shut, they skip the process of having her body change — in other words, the actual transformation part of the transformation story. She just suddenly shows up in the same rail-thin body most actresses have, looking nothing whatsoever like people who lose a large amount of weight in a short time. In the world of Insatiable, Patty lives the dream in which an external force simply peels weight off of her without her having any agency whatsoever, and she wakes up looking the way she’s always wanted to look. And other than at a couple of highly emotional moments when she binge-eats in scenes portrayed as grotesque, her weight and her eating habits are never an issue again. This, it should go without saying, is generally not how it goes.
Patty meets Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts), a lawyer and former pageant coach who has been disgraced by a false accusation of sexual abuse (played for comedy as a screaming, scheming mother makes the accusation out of pure spite). Bob represents Patty when she’s prosecuted for punching the candy-stealer, and Patty gets out of trouble by — what a coincidence! — falsely claiming that she punched the man because she feared a sexual assault. (If you’re keeping score, that’s two false accusations in the first episode.) Bob realizes that Patty’s newly acceptable body is his ticket back into pageants. Before you know it, Bob and Patty are pursuing the title of Miss Magic Jesus (?), while Patty nurses a sudden, inexplicable, all-consuming crush on Bob.
“But of course,” you may protest as these absurdities accumulate, “realism is beside the point! It is satire!”
Let me assure you: It is not satire. Insatiable is satire in the same way someone who screams profanities out a car window is a spoken-word poet. Satire requires a point of view; this has none. It generally requires some feel for humor, however dark; this has none. It requires a mastery of tone; this has none. It requires a sense that the actors are all part of the same project; this has none.
Eventually, a whole mess of characters inhabit this world: Patty’s alcoholic, neglectful mother who begins feeling competitive with Patty the minute she gets thin; Coralee, Bob’s narcissistic social-climber wife (Alyssa Milano, why are you here?), who begins feeling competitive with Patty once Bob starts coaching her; Bob’s often shirtless rival (Christopher Gorham, why?), with whom Bob shares allegedly hilarious homoerotic energy in the early episodes; Patty’s best friend Nonnie, the one person who loved her when she was fat … let’s see, who else, who else?
Oh, right: Bob and Coralee’s teenage son, Brick, who’s sleeping with one of mothers of one of Patty’s high-school rivals. This story is treated as extremely funny, and the mother as gloriously trashy, and nobody seems too terribly concerned about the fact that it involves an adult having sex with a minor.
Looking from a distance at the plot description, it would be easy to wonder whether it’s something genuinely daring, a look at the dark underbelly of … something or other. Maybe it’s inspired by the likes of To Die For, or Election, or … something? Surely, some of this can be attributed to same kind of wackadoodle speed-plotting as, say, Jane The Virgin?
No. No, no. Understand: The biggest problem with this show is not that it’s crazy or offensive. It certainly is obnoxious in its treatment of all kinds of people — on top of the insulting fat-suit stuff, it contains other tropes and types best avoided: an awkward and unsexy Asian-American boy, a magical sassy godmother who is fat and black and a lesbian who exists only to educate thin white girls on how to live their best lives, and so forth.
But it’s so much more than that. Story elements are introduced and then abandoned. Jokes fall flat, flatter, flattest. Patty swerves without reason or nuance from eye-narrowing, vengeance-swearing vixen to lip-quivering, damp-eyed waif. A character who loves someone in one scene will hate them in the next. Characters who have been kind will be cruel and vice-versa, without any explanation or motive.
Perhaps nothing in Insatiable is more bizarre than the attempts to hammer viewers with unearned emotional notes. You may recall that there were no deeply felt Very Special Episodes of Seinfeld or 30 Rock, because they would have been so out of place — the way they are here.
While Insatiable would like you to excuse its considerable meanness as satire or even good-doing, the truth is that it’s often tooth-tinglingly saccharine. Series creator Lauren Gussis and some of the members of the cast have claimed that the show is about revealing the negative effects of bullying and fat-shaming, which may well have been the good-faith intent at one time, but which is nowhere in the final product. It’s fair, though, to say the show isn’t always shaming Patty, exactly, just as Alyssa Milano has said it isn’t on Twitter. It is often pitying Patty.
That’s probably the one way in which the trailer that caused so much aggravation is, in fact, not representative of the show: The trailer focuses on the parts of the series where Patty is crazy and vengeful, and it doesn’t address the parts where Patty is pathetic and miserable, which are also plentiful. For instance, we get to see Patty at one point, thin and looking precisely like a model in a magazine, weeping in a dressing room in a bikini because she’s convinced that she’s fat and ugly. She is assured by Nonnie that this is no longer the case. Certainly, misapprehending the reality of your own looks is a real thing worth addressing! But the buck-up-little-buddy message of this sequence is not “love yourself no matter how you look” or “fat-shaming is bad.” It’s “even if you don’t see it, you are in fact thin and pretty!” Nothing here is challenging what categories of people deserve love; only whether Patty can learn to accept that she’s been in the good category ever since they wired her jaw shut.
Maybe the intent is to say Patty always deserved love, but there is no way — none — around the fact that if what you want to demonstrate in a story is that someone deserves love in a particular state of being, you must show them being loved in that state. And if you, the storyteller, can’t bring yourself to show it, you probably don’t quite believe it.
The only way this show could have been saved would have been making it shorter by degrees of magnitude. Insatiable might have made, with most of its extraneous plot elements and stereotypes excised, a passable if simplistic movie. A girl who suddenly becomes skinny and wrongly believes that it will fix everything? It probably would not have been good, and it sure would not have been new, but it would have been less bad than this. And very late in the game, there is a chunk of Bob’s story — maybe 10 minutes or so of screen time — that’s nicely done and worth watching, though not nearly as revolutionary as it thinks it is, and not at all reconcilable with things that happened earlier. But still! It’s something.
But oh, it is a slog. There are 12 episodes, some as long as 51 or 52 minutes long. There’s just way, way too much of it. As with a Minnesota winter or an oral surgery, Insatiable‘s duration is almost more punishing than the experience itself. Filler follows filler, blind alley follows blind alley. There’s a paternity test! There’s an exorcism! None of it is relevant!
What’s funny — what took me several long episodes to realize — is that I could have forgiven Insatiable for the insulting premise identifiable from its trailer. I would have. I know, because I’ve done it, over and over, more times than I can count. I gave it all 12 episodes to change my mind — or to change its mind about Patty. I’ve forgiven fat jokes and insulting portrayals and ignorant caricatures and donuts and candy and “ME WANT FOOOOD” in probably half the movies and TV shows I’ve ever loved. Fat Monica and Parks and Rec‘s obesity jokes and monologue jokes by comics I think are brilliant. I’ve done it with funny movies where it’s not until I rewatch them that I even remember that they have That Moment, That Fat Guy, That Gluttonous Slob. I seal memories of moments into capsules and bury them, just so I can watch the same things everybody else does. Mostly, it’s fine.
Insatiable doesn’t deserve the second chance I’d have extended it if it had become good after that dehumanizing opening sequence. So perhaps it’s just as well that it didn’t.