Debby Ryan and James Lastovic in Insatiable.
Before the press embargo broke on Insatiable, the new Netflix series was already being criticized. A trailer released online strongly implied that the comedy, in which Debby Ryan stars as a plump high-schooler who suddenly becomes thin and hot, perpetuates fat shaming. As a result, a petition asking Netflix to cancel it was signed and circulated. Last week, at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, Netflix responded to the controversy by saying, in essence: Give Insatiable a chance. It’s not quite what you think it is.
Well, I’ve seen all twelve — twelve, I tell you, twelve! — episodes of Insatiable, and it turns out the show is not as bad as you imagined. It’s actually worse. Like, worse in ways that you can’t even anticipate.
Insatiable is an equal-opportunity train wreck. It doesn’t merely traffic in stereotypes about fat people; it does the same thing with regard to the LGBTQ community, Southerners, women, Christians, conservatives, African-Americans, and probably some other groups I’ve neglected to mention. It makes jokes about pedophilia and statutory rape that made my skin crawl so severely, it physically slid off of my body, got in my car, and drove straight to the beach so it could take a vacation from this show. Insatiable is impressive in its capacity offend a vast array of ideologies, including the notion that TV in 2018 should really be a hell of a lot smarter and more nuanced than this. On top of all that, it’s a freakin’ narrative mess.
Having said all that — which, I realize, is a lot — the second half of the season does try to engage with certain issues in a slightly more sensitive way. Multiple characters, including Patty’s best friend Nonnie (Kimmy Shields, who plays the part with a sincerity that has no place in this exaggerated, mean-spirited TV universe), grapple honestly with their sexual orientation while Patty realizes that becoming skinny is by no means a solution to her problems. But the series takes way too long to get to those moments.
“I wasn’t a loser when I was fat,” Patty says to herself in the season finale. “And I wasn’t a loser now.” That may be the well-intentioned message Insatiable and its creator, former Dexter writer Lauren Gussis, are aiming to convey. But after literally saying for multiple, 40-minute-plus episodes that “skinny is magic,” it’s difficult and frankly disingenuous to try to reverse course. After dropping homophobic line after homophobic line into its dialogue, it’s just as jarring for Insatiable to suddenly treat the process of coming out with respect. Watching this show is like observing someone commit a crime, sentence themselves to community service, then try to get credit for their commitment to good works as if they never did anything wrong in the first place. (Come to think of it, this describes several of the show’s characters and plot lines, too.)
The defense that Netflix offered is that the show is designed to be over-the-top satire. The stuff that seems offensive? Insatiable is in on the jokes, and just pushing boundaries to make a point. The problem is that it doesn’t come across that way. Social satire is very tricky. For it to work, a film or series has to make it clear from the get-go that it’s intelligent, in total command of its tone, and definitely winking at its audience. Insatiable doesn’t do any of that. Instead of winking, it just bats its eyes furiously and assumes we’ll understand that it’s kidding even though much of the time, it’s not clear when it’s kidding. On top of everything else, in the last two episodes, it practically abandons any attempt at dark comedy and turns almost entirely into a combination of serious drama — about throupling, no less — and a thriller.
Take episode one, which is easily the worst episode of TV I’ve seen all year. It introduces us to “Fatty” Patty, our miserable teenage girl protagonist whose persistent weight problem is telegraphed by putting the svelte Ryan, former star of Disney Channel’s Jessie, in a fat suit. Actually, “fat suit” might not even be the right word for what Ryan has to wear: Basically, she gets a chin prosthetic slapped on the bottom of her face, plus what appears to be a couple of body pillows shoved under her clothes. I’ve seen Santa Clauses at preschool holiday parties that look more convincingly obese than Ryan does in the early portions of this series. Even flashback Monica Geller on Friends is more convincingly obese than this!
Patty tells us that she’s tried everything to slim down: diets, cleanses, religiously counting her steps on a Fitbit. She even stops eating entirely at one point until she passes out, but it’s all for naught. She’s still carrying the extra pounds and tons of shame, while her peers continue to cruelly mock her. Then, a miracle happens: She gets into a fight with a homeless guy outside of a convenience store and, after injuring her jaw, has to have it wired shut for several months, which causes her to lose 70 pounds. That’s all it takes, girls! Just shut your mouth for the better part of a year, don’t eat any solids, and you, too, can have it all.
Now that she’s rocking a bodacious bod, Patty captures the attention of Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts of The Good Wife), an attorney in her town of Masonville, Georgia, who’s also an obsessive beauty pageant coach. Bob, married to the social-climbing Coralee (Alyssa Milano), wants to take on Patty as a client for a couple of reasons. One: so he can finally defeat his nemesis, Bob Barnard (Christopher Gorham), another local attorney and pageant coach whose daughter wins every beaded crown she seeks. And two: to rebuild his reputation after a crazy former client, Dixie Sinclair (Irene Choi), and her even crazier mother Regina (Arden Myrin), publicly (and falsely) accuse him of abusing Dixie. “He touched her hoo-hoo!” Regina shouts seconds after Dixie loses another pageant. In case you can’t tell, this show is so-phist-i-cated.
Patty, who’s flattered to be seen as worthy of a pageant sash, takes a shine to the idea and, also, to Bob. See, this is the part where you’re supposed to laugh: An underaged girl is actually attracted to an older man who’s been branded a pedophile! “He’s a child molester,” Nonnie reminds Patty. “Which means I might have a shot,” Patty responds. Then she starts watching Drew Barrymore, her idol, in The Amy Fisher Story so she can get tips about how to behave around Bob. ARE YOU LAUGHING YET?
In addition to being hot for an (alleged) creeper, Patty is also eager to enact revenge on everyone who made her feel lousy about herself when she was heavy, starting with that homeless guy, whom she seduces in a hotel room, douses in vodka, and seemingly sets on fire. All of what I have just described all happens in the first episode.
The jokes and set pieces only get more uninspired from there. A whole scene takes place at a fundraiser for anal cancer, because the word anal is just hilarious. Bob Armstrong’s son Brick (Michael Provost) is sleeping with Regina, because apparently one joke about high-school kids getting it on with grown adults was not enough. When Dixie, who is Chinese and adopted, jokes that she’s confused about something, Regina tells her, “I know, baby. That’s because you were malnourished in China.” And when Insatiable needs a character to show Patty it’s possible to be a little overweight and comfortable in your skin, and also to show Nonnie it’s possible to be a lesbian and comfortable in your skin, it conjures up a single, classic magical negro in the form of Dee (Ashley D. Kelly).
Even basic details don’t ring true. Everyone in this show is supposedly born and raised in Georgia, but only half of them speak with proper Southern accents. Patty is being raised by a single, alcoholic mother who works behind the counter at a fast-food restaurant called Weiner Taco, but their house is large and filled with more Craftsman-style accents than one would imagine a Weiner Taco salary would allow. More importantly, it seems odd that entering the pageant world would immediately appeal to Patty, given her instant instinct to express her rage by engaging in a combination of arson and murder. Rather than winning at a game played by the pretty people who once tortured her, she seems more inclined to burn the whole thing to the ground.
But a lot of things don’t add up in Insatiable. In the eighth episode — which gets so bonkers, it almost made me like the show for a couple of minutes — it’s hinted that one of the characters might actually be a vampire of some kind. But then, despite the fact that Patty has a visible vampire bite on her neck for much of the episode, it’s never discussed. Which is a bummer, because turning this into a weird riff on Twilight would have at least made things interesting.
Aside from Twilight hat tips, there are times when it seems like Insatiable is trying to riff on the teen genre, but again, it never commits to that concept. Also, the show is so bad that even passing attempts to draw parallels between itself and funnier, more insightful classics leaves a bad taste in the mouth. During the second episode, a Breakfast Club reference and the use of the song “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” made me say, out loud, “You take John Hughes and Simple Minds out of your mouth right now.”
What’s most perplexing is that some talented people are involved in making this disaster. Andrew Fleming, who wrote and directed one of the best, most underrated satires of the 1990s — the Watergate-riffing Dick — is an executive producer and directs several episodes. In addition to the actors I’ve already mentioned, supporting players including Michael Ian Black, Christine Taylor, and Beverly D’Angelo are also along for the ride. I have to think that all of them could find better ways to earn a paycheck.
As for Ryan, she clearly sought out this darker, sexier material at least in part to prove that her Disney Channel days are long behind her. But some of her strongest skills, like her ability with a sarcastic one-liner, don’t get put on display at all. Still, she’s not bad. She throws herself into the role with a certain gusto. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that, compared to Insatiable, Jessie looks like a finely crafted work of comedic genius.
Despite the laundry list of flaws that Insatiable possesses — honestly, I’ve only scratched the surface here — it seems possible that, based on the way this season ends, there could be a second. But one season of this show makes me feel nauseated enough to know I definitely don’t need to sample any more. That’s not because I’m worried about too much bingeing. It’s because I have some taste.
Correction: A previous version of this review stated that Dee is the only African-American character of significance in Insatiable. There are other African-American characters in the series, so that sentence was removed and the review was republished. Our apologies for the error.