Monday, June 4, 2018

REVIEW: 'Dietland' - Plum Meets New Friends Who Present a Radical New Outlook on Life in 'Pilot' & 'Tender Belly'

AMC's Dietland - Episodes 1.01 "Pilot" and 1.02 "Tender Belly"

Plum is determined to get weight loss surgery, but puts her job in jeopardy. Plum visits a radical feminist organization and is made an offer she can't refuse.

There is a lot going on in AMC's Dietland. It's covering themes that make it an important and vital show in the #MeToo era - tackling stories such as body perception, self image, rape culture, unfair beauty standards, etc. But there's also just a ton of plot happening that threatens to overwhelm the viewer while pulling us and Plum Kettle into too many different directions. To start off, Plum is a ghost writer at a magazine doing the self-help column for editor Kitty Montgomery. She is a plus sized women who has always struggled with her weight and has tried countless diets and exercise in the hopes of losing the pounds. Nothing has worked for her. So, she's ready to get weight loss surgery. Then, she's recruited by some mysterious individuals inside the magazine to get the emails of the girls writing letters to Kitty to give them the advice that they truly need to hear right now. It's the potential for her to become involved in a conspiracy to take down this titanic industry that just props up the idea that women need to be beautiful and skinny in order to be perceived as desirable and important. Then, Plum is sent to another woman who runs a home to help people feel empowered and passionate. It could be tied to a weight loss journey. Or it could be a story about her accepting herself and learning how to utilize her anger into meaningful actions. And then, there's just this random vigilante storyline happening throughout the world where a group of mysterious women are kidnapping and killing horrible men who have done terrible crimes against women. That's a lot and this two hour premiere doesn't know the best way to juggle all of those disparate stories. Yes, there is such a strong focus on Plum as she is becoming aware of all the different facets of this world. There are only a few scenes in the second episode that don't feature Plum at all. Of course, those still feel like the characters involved are talking around a certain subject because Plum needs to be the character of importance in this show. The audience needs to be on the same page as her all of the time even though each episode also features omniscient voiceover from Plum in the future offering vague warnings about how much she'll lose because she gets into this plot to change the world. It's a noble idea. But it also doesn't quite seem fully formed at the moment. It may eventually all come together for a cohesive story. But now, it's a bunch of separate parts that never really feel like they belong together.

And yet, these opening episodes do a ton of work in just showing the woman behind Plum Kettle. She is a woman who is always aware of how the rest of the world must be seeing her. She has always been crippled with self doubt and the belief that people need to be skinny in order to be happy. She doesn't believe it's fair for feminist causes to say that women should absolutely be comfortable in whatever body they have. They are beautiful and special no matter what. Plum has never felt special. She is just perfectly fine with the rest of the world calling her Plum when her name is actually Alicia. That's just an easier way for her to find acceptance because it must mean that she is in on the joke. People are commenting on her size and physical appearance. Her being fine with that allows it to strip the joke of its power. It's a way for her to feel special and important. But it's been a long time since that name was given to her. Even her mother just wants Plum to be happy with her life and the way that she looks. She doesn't want her to risk so much just in order to become skinny. And yet, Plum can never just accept that as her mother caring for her and trying to love her. She just sees it as further proof that no one in this world truly understands her. Plum has always felt singled-out and made to feel different because of the way she looks. As such, she believes it's the only thing that people notice about her. Whenever she meets someone new, she just sees their interaction through the perspective of how they are judging her based on her outward appearance. She isn't happy in her current life. That's clear to see. But even if she suddenly became skinny, her life wouldn't drastically improve itself. It takes work for happiness to build. Right now, she's content with her bubble.

It certainly seems as if Plum is incredibly depressed. She has just made peace with the way the world must see her. As such, she doesn't know how to speak up for herself or actually push for something different and better. She has never felt like her opinion mattered. She's amazed that someone could have 50 friends they could invite to a birthday party. She just has her passions in life. She loves writing and baking. And yet, she views the latter as this incredibly toxic thing that could send her spiraling down the tragic path to binging on food once more. And yes, food addiction is a serious disease that can be absolutely crippling. But right now, Plum is made to feel judged the moment she has an unhealthy snack. She wants to get this surgery. And yet, she must lose weight for it to even be a possibility. And right now, losing fifteen pounds seems so incredibly daunting to her. She's hungry and angry all of the time. The only passion that enters her life is when she sees it personified through animation. That could be yet another strange stylistic detail of this show. Plum just sometimes sees herself in animation. It may be a form of disconnect with the world around her. She's still unhappy in that life as well. She sees the rest of the world as happy because they have their nuclear families and passions that they can explore because of their looks. Plum worries about challenging the status quo of her life because she can't risk losing her job and the insurance that comes with it. Even when she is having a flirtatious encounter with a guy, she believes that the only person who could be interested in her is one who has a kink for big women. That's so self-destructive and makes her believe that love is something that will just never happen for her. That's terribly depressing.

Plum's life starts to change once she notices someone following her. It should be seen as very scary and precarious. It definitely is that as well. It appears as if Leeta is only stalking her in the hopes of getting Plum to try out this new diet that will radically change her life. Plum sees it as nothing more than a pitch and another confirmation for just how cynical and destructive the world can be to women like her. Instead, it's Plum being recruited into a cause. Leeta is just making initial contact in order to determine if Plum is the right person they should be targeting. Plum is only picked from relative obscurity because someone at the corporate entity that owns the magazine could see that Kitty wasn't the one actually writing the advice column. She was simply too smart and educated. As such, it was too easy to send in a fake letter to see how the response would be handled in the column. But it just offers further proof that Plum is talented and can use her voice for good when actually given those opportunities. Kitty doesn't want to change their working relationship at all. She sees Plum as important enough to ghost write her column but not essential to the staff where she needs to have her name actually in the magazine. It's a way to further keep Plum oppressed. Plum is unable to fight back because she simply doesn't know how to ask for what she wants. In fact, she may not even know what she wants. That's a dream that can be explored once new opportunities arise for her when she's skinny. But Julia is presenting an opportunity for her to enact change right now. It's a moment where Plum can feel powerful even though she doesn't know what Julia plans on doing with this email list. It's enough to start a conversation and a relationship. But it's also not enough to actually invoke change within Plum.

This may ultimately be a story about self-acceptance. These episodes show just how difficult it can be to actually love oneself. Plum knows all about the Baptist method. It's the only diet that almost worked for her. She is still subconsciously dieting according to those rules as well. That's what makes it so radical when Verena Baptist shows up to tell Plum that the diet was a complete lie. It could not back up its promises of losing weight and keeping it off. It was just a story that was marketed in order to create a business. It allowed the family to get rich without needing to deal with any of the consequences of this scheme. Verena did the right thing but shutting the facilities down. But she also couldn't tarnish the legacy of her family. She still needed the money in order to do good in the world. And now, she believes she is doing so by helping people connect with what will truly help them in their lives. Plum takes that as Verena trying to get her to be happy and loving as a plus-sized woman. That's not what Verena is suggesting at all. She just wants to work with Plum to see what kind of dynamic could flourish if Plum actually opens her life up to accepting all of the beauty and desire she wants into it. She may still be her happiest when she is skinny. Surgery may still be the best option for her to achieve her dreams. But it's also important for her to put in this therapeutic work in order to ensure that she has every opportunity to live a happy and healthy life. That's inspirational because it treats all of this as an ongoing conversation that is unique to each individual person. And yet, the show adding a conspiracy on top of all of this character work where future Plum laments about the choices she's making now does a significant harm to the stakes of the show. It makes it seem like all of this is a mistake and it's instead much better for Plum to just live in her same box with her quaint life. That really shouldn't be the message at all for this series.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Marti Noxon and directed by Marti Noxon.
  • "Tender Belly" was written by Marti Noxon and directed by Marti Noxon.
  • Joy Nash's performance could initially be read as passive and not all that exciting. And yet, it's important for the audience to get into Plum's mindset to know just how defeated and self-loathing she is. That way it's understandable when she wants to take these steps of radical change to improve her life. It is a strong performance even though she is surrounded by some veteran actresses who have much flashier roles.
  • Speaking of which, it's a little surprising to see just how little Julianna Margulies there is in these opening two episodes. This is her big return to television just two years after The Good Wife ended. It's a very different character for her where Kitty isn't suppose to be liked or billed as a role model. But it's also such a minor character as well. Hopefully, that will change in the future because Margulies could really have fun just going all in on the extremes of Kitty while going toe-to-toe with a changing world.
  • The Daisy Chain magazine has also been hacked. That invites a detective into this world. And yet, it seems as if Dominic is more interested in Plum than actually doing his job. He flirts with her. That's his main function in the show so far. And yet, it's also very ominous to note that he appears to be following Plum around as well. So, he could be seen as the latest horrible man that Jennifer will feel the need to punish for his actions.
  • The Jennifer story really is separate from everything else going on in this premiere. It's just on the fringes of the story. It has yet to personally invade the world of the characters. No one really knows what's going on. And yet, it is also important for them to note that the first two victims were ex-military men who were accused of rape. Then, the second victim is a photographer who has worked for the magazine who became inappropriate with the models. It's all just a tease. But right now, it seems like a blunt way to focus on these themes as well.
  • Plus, there has to be the inevitable reveal that one of the main characters is involved with Jennifer in some way. That name needs to have some kind of personal significance. It also has to be someone whom Plum has just started interacting with. As such, the potential mostly seems limited to Julia, Verena and Leeta. They all have various interactions amongst themselves as well. But they remain mysterious figures too whom Plum is trusting completely.