Like many overstuffed stories desperate to maintain the appearance that things are safely in order, “Dietland” heavily utilizes voiceover narration. Early on, Plum Kettle (Joy Nash) alerts the audience that her voice is indeed coming from the future, framing the new AMC drama as a memoir of sorts. That gels with the novel that birthed it, which was partly inspired by author Sarai Walker’s experience at women’s magazines, but it doesn’t justify the choice in Marti Noxon’s TV show.
This “Dietland” is a lot of things. It’s a personal take on Plum’s quest to lose weight and a social activism piece about fat-shaming and cultural misogyny. With so many important causes to explore, it should come as no surprise a handful individual moments hit home, especially when Nash is allowed to say her piece in character, in the moment, rather than reiterate Plum’s position via all-knowing but impersonal narration. Through three episodes, though, “Dietland” feels out of control, predominantly because it doesn’t trust its main character to hold the audience’s interest on her own.
Meet Plum Kettle, a writer and semi-professional baker who’s very aware her name, as another character puts it, sounds like it comes from a children’s book. Contrary to that assertion, her primary source of income deals with very adult issues. Plum ghostwrites answers to letters to her editor, Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies), from damaged young women. Questions about rape, cutting, and suicide flood Kitty’s inbox, and Plum responds in her voice with the heightened intellect Kitty wants to convey.
Though she wants to be a serious journalist, Plum’s main objective is to lose enough weight to undergo a risky and controversial surgery that will supposedly help her keep the weight off. Though her friends and family are against it, Plum dreams of a life where she’s not constantly hungry and constantly being objectified by everyone outside her neighborhood’s safe “bubble.”
Nash lives every beat of Plum’s life. When she’s on a prospective date and a casual comment about weight gain makes things awkward, you understand everything going through Plum’s mind because of Nash’s detailed reaction. When she’s being shut down by her passive aggressive boss, you feel her frustration — but also her pained acceptance — because Nash is able to bring herself inward at the drop of a sentence. Nash makes Plum immediately relatable (for reasons beyond her weight issues), which makes the persistent narration all the more annoying.
But redundancy isn’t the only problem facing a core story that would work just fine on its own. There’s so much more going on here. There’s a group of “feminist” terrorists who kidnap and kill known rapists, harassers, or other men who hurt women (but the law cannot touch). There’s a woman working in the basement of Kitty’s skyscraper who’s working against the queen above her. There’s the daughter of phony dietitians who sponsors Plum’s ambitious writing projects as a form of “reparation” for what her mother and father did to her. There are strange, animated dream sequences and equally odd visions Plum experiences while awake — one of which involves a man dressed in a tiger suit who’s there to have sex with her.
It’s all… a lot, but it also takes away from Plum’s core story. Noxon, who developed the series for television and directed the pilot, is trying to create an overall experience here, trying everything she can think of to put the audience in Plum’s shoes. Her anger at the system comes through in spades, and “Dietland” does establish a distinct personality, and fast. But many of the stylistic choices sever a connection with Plum instead of enforcing one. The show isn’t boring — far from it. But it can be overwhelming, as well.
This lack of trust in Plum is so ironic it hurts; one of the character’s main issues is a lack of faith in herself — in her beauty, inside and out. “Dietland’s” plot is about showing her she’s wrong and saving her from an oppressive culture built to make women feel bad about themselves. But it’s clear after the premiere that Nash’s performance and character are compelling; far more compelling than some weird terrorist plot, a delusion-driven sex tiger, and some secret agenda to bring down a powerful media mogul. While that last point could develop nicely alongside Plum’s arc, putting all of the plot lines together turns them into distractions more than effective talking points; “Dietland” needs to prioritize Plum if they want their broader points to connect.
“Dietland” premieres Monday, June 4 at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.