Long before Insatiable, Netflix’s latest original teen dark comedy, premiered on August 10, it was met with premature waves of criticism. Within five days of its trailer hitting YouTube, a Change.org petition called for its cancellation—the show’s apparent fat-shaming rhetoric made it prime bait for judgment. While all the external drama may be enough to court viewers, the creators’ promise of a redemptive storyline couldn’t save the show from not only realizing those critiques, but also bulldozing through various injustices while boring its audience into misery.
If Insatiable hadn’t sparked such a knee-jerk reaction, it’s unlikely that I would’ve spent the 550 minutes (give or take) required to sit through its 12-episode season, or give it the consideration creator Lauren Gussis (Dexter) begged of dissenters. Insatiable, very plausibly, could’ve died a quiet death. But it’s likely many people will watch, as I did, out of the morbid curiosity alone. (Major spoilers below.)
The clichés hit within 20 seconds of Episode 1. Disney’s Debby Ryan plays Fatty Patty, an overweight teenager who loses 75 pounds after getting into an altercation with a homeless man who insults her appearance—he punches her in the jaw, forcing her to wire it shut, adopting a liquid diet one summer and presto-chango, as in any ’80s high school movie, she’s thin and hot. (As for the homeless man, she kills him in a Heathers-derivative act of revenge.)
Patty’s internal monologue serves as narrator for Insatiable, as she utters harmful, short-sighted phrases like: “I’ve heard of women with healthy relationships with their bodies... fuck those bitches.” They’re statements emblematic of adolescent insecurity, but if Insatiable is truly meant to be meaningful satire of what it’s like to be young and fat, as Netflix claimed it to be, the jokes fail to land. Instead, the series attempts to find amusement in offensive, unnecessary plot developments. That makes for a cruel tale that is also a slog.
Some of its worst moments occur around Episode 4, well after it’s established that Patty will enter a pageant to impress her lawyer/coach, Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts), a man who was ostracized from society after being falsely accused of sexually assaulting a minor. (Exactly what the world needs, a statistically implausible storyline about a girl lying about rape.) Attempts at humor, in this miserable midsection of the plot, becomes lowest-common-denominator slapstick. In Episode 3, while attending the Miss Bareback Buckaroo pageant, Patty is bucked off a prize-winning horse—which, of course, immediately shits close to her face.
What breaks up these gags are upsetting elements like Patty repeating her “skinny is magic” mantra. During this dreadful build, Insatiable opts for easy degradation over nuance while introducing different characters of varying backgrounds: by Episode 5, Patty’s relationship to her conventionally attractive form is compared to the trans experience. By Episode 6, a queer, black, fat woman is introduced to act as the terrible town’s moral center. By Episode 8, all conflict is explained by a nonexistent demon living inside of Patty, which serves to humiliate the Southern, Christian environment where her story takes place.
In the last three episodes, the mood shifts almost entirely. What was initially a poor attempt at comedy becomes a poor attempt at drama—with similarly ineffective results. Patty’s mentor Bob goes through a queer sexual awakening, forming and then dissolving a throuple—the rise and fall of which is so quick, it’s unclear whether it’s meant to mock fluid sexuality.
The climactic moment, however, appears in the finale, with a visual metaphor so astonishingly lazy it pains me to detail. In a final scene, after Patty fails to kidnap one of her competitors and instead finds herself kidnapped for a second time in one day (locked in the back of a wiener taco truck), she uses pastry icing to grease herself out of handcuffs—you get where they’re going with this: food, her eternal nemesis, is her salvation. This, apparently, is the big revelatory moment the viewer has spent over nine hours waiting for, if they’ve managed to make it this far at all.
Even calling Insatiable a television series seems to elevate it too much. If the through line is Patty’s interest in pageantry or her battle with her body, it’s abandoned and returned to, inconsequentially, in the form of cheap explication. Nothing is resolved. Nothing is learned. Patty is not only uninteresting, she’s not worth the emotional investment. Attempts to build anything with depth—for example, Patty’s BFF Nonnie (Kimmy Shields) coming to terms with her queer identity, an all-too-brief subplot—are dropped, or answered too swiftly.
The fat-shaming narrative is already driving conversation about Insatiable, which doesn’t really deserve any notoriety in the first place (unless it somehow illustrates that teens are not dumb and deserve smart, dark comedy.) It’s something show creator Gussis spoke about at length in The Hollywood Reporter, still missing the mark. “I think that if we try to tell people how they should tell their stories, if we try to silence them, then we are doing the opposite of what art needs to do, which is to spark conversation,” she said. “We are, as a society, getting very close to the dangers of censorship.” What Gussis fails to realize here is that the criticism of Insatiable isn’t merely in the form of a call for cancellation via Change.org petition, but in the poor execution itself.
What do we actually want to see in a fat protagonist whose personal, bodily agency helps drive a show’s message? You can make many superficial reads of Insatiable and many of them are correct—but perhaps the most damning is that only Skinny Patty’s experience was worth telling, and her former fat self is literally demonized. I’m not sure what the answer is, but it’s not this.