If you’re looking for positive meanings, earned wisdom, or role modeling from “Insatiable,” your hunger will go unsatisfied. The controversial new Netflix comedy is filled with giant themes about radical weight loss, the superficiality of appearances, identity, parenting, and revenge, but they don’t nearly add up to a coherent message, never mind an affirming message. There’s no there there, when it comes to the show’s broad intentions. It’s just a jumble of provocations, half-baked jokes, random cultural satire, farce, bad puns, and attempted campiness that ultimately doesn’t make a unified point.
A few weeks ago, more than 200,000 people who saw the show’s trailer signed a petition claiming that the show was indeed making a point — that it was going to be offensively fat-shaming. The concept: Before she loses weight, Patty (Debby Ryan in a fat suit) is miserable; her classmates call her “Fatty Patty” and put pictures of pigs on her locker. But after getting socked in the mouth — by a homeless man, over a chocolate candy bar — and having her jaw wired shut for three months, she loses 70 pounds and voila! She’s now a knockout bent on revenge, and she takes to the pageant circuit to rub noses in her beauty-queenliness. In defending the show, creator Lauren Gussis said the story was based on her own history and, ultimately, about self-empowerment.
At this point, I can’t imagine blaming “Insatiable” for much — for fat-shaming, for placing too much emphasis on superficialities, for making weight loss look far too easy. It’s too much of a mess to be significant. The humor is a hodgepodge of styles that contradicts itself — at times celebrating thin Patty’s new ability to make boys do anything for her, at other times condemning it. After she loses weight, Patty decides to enter the pageant world thanks to prodding from her quirky lawyer, a pageant coach named Bob (Dallas Roberts). On one level, the show is celebrating her entry into a world of taped-up breasts and tiaras; on another level, the pageant world is revealed as a jaded nightmare of backstabbers. Is she taking a step forward, or back? Hard to tell.
The questions accumulate. Is Bob, a neurotic competitor whose attentions toward Patty are self-interested, really the hero he is often portrayed as? Hard to tell.
And then there are the strange adult-teen sexual encounters, which the show treats with a remarkable amount of shoulder shrugging. One of the big jokes is that Bob has been falsely accused of molesting a pageant student, forcing Bob and his wife, Alyssa Milano’s Coralee, to go through comic contortions to beat the rap. Meanwhile, the accusing mother is sleeping with Bob’s teen son — a fact that doesn’t appear to make anyone enraged. It’s almost as if we’re supposed to be so thoroughly amused by the entire cast’s forced Southern accents to care about the grotesquery of an adult taking advantage of a teen. In a number of scenes, too, teen girls are shown coming on to older men — Patty, most notably, who is so madly in love with Bob she spends a lot of time plotting her way into his bedroom when they’re on a pageant trip. Patty’s stated role model: Amy Fisher. Hahaha??
The tone of the show occasionally made me think of John Waters’s “Hairspray” in its efforts to have fun with high school tropes and types and to embrace but laugh at pop culture. But we know where “Hairspray” is coming from at all times, particularly regarding its central character’s weight. “Insatiable,” not so much. As it mixes dumb jokes about bareback sex and a fast-food place called Wiener Taco with more astute satire about our body-focused culture, the show isn’t attached to a foundation. The performers are fine, but they are left hanging by the script, as it drifts in and out of confusion.
Starring: Dallas Roberts, Debby Ryan, Christopher Gorham, Alyssa Milano, Kimmy Shields, Alice Eve, Daniel Kang, Michael Provost, Erinn Westbrook, Irene Choi, Carly Hughes
On: Netflix, first season streams FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.