Review: ‘Dietland’ is dark, funny and very engaging new series

WHAT: "Dietland" on AMC, airing at 9 p.m. Mondays

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Plum Kettle (Joy Nash) is a ghostwriter for the editor of a New York-based teen fashion mag, Daisy Chain. This editor — a vain, viperous Helen Gurley Brown-wannabe named Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies) has hired Plum to write a smart, empathetic advice column under Kitty’s name, in response to the thousands of letters that pour into headquarters. These letters are from desperate girls who want to know how to deal with life’s many problems, and on occasion, tragedies too. Plum, who has spent a lifetime battling her weight, also works as a pastry chef in a Brooklyn coffee bar where, one day a mysterious woman, Leeta (Erin Darke), walks in and writes the word “Dietland” on Plum’s arm — referring to a debunked diet plan of the same name that Plum had once tried. It marks the beginning of a wild ride that will bring her into the orbit of an underground feminist group and a guerrilla band of vigilantes, “Jennifer,” who are avenging crimes against women — by dispatching one male victim at a time.

This series, based on the 2015 Sarai Walker novel “Dietland,” was adapted by Marti Noxon (“UnReal,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”).

MY SAY: Plum Kettle is a cross between Hannah Horvath of “Girls” and Walter Mitty, but — in truth — there’s a lot more Mitty here than Horvath. Alone in her apartment and in her mind, she’s been held in confinement for just a little too long in both places, and demands to be set free, or at least her imagination does. As a latter-day Miss Lonelyhearts, she writes pithy responses to tragic questions — questions about cutting, abuse or rape. Masquerading as Kitty Montgomery only makes this charade worse. Kitty is bone-thin and has the intellectual heft of a dust mite. (Margulies, by the way, gets Noxon’s funniest lines and squanders not a one.)

Plum is her exact, profound opposite.

Under such circumstances or because of such circumstances, just about any mind would tend to wander, but Plum’s has true wanderlust. After she’s gone off her antidepressants by the third episode, the hallucinations kick in. At least one of those — amusingly inspired by one of her cherished TV nature documentaries — offers erotic possibilities.

None of this is to suggest that “Dietland” is some sort of Bryan Fuller-esque fairy tale. It’s not, remotely, but there are just enough whimsically surreal touches — the right number, in fact — to throw everything and everyone slightly off-balance. Put another way: Plum’s head trip quickly becomes your head trip.

Nash — “Twin Peaks” fans will vividly recall her breakout moment as Senorita Dido in the Showtime reboot — is just about perfect as Plum. Her eyes tend to look inward, examining her thoughts and reactions before she verbalizes them. But they also reveal a tumultuous inner life. The battles with her weight, and food, are both poignant and funny, but she’s also trapped in the body she didn’t choose and trapped by the culture that vilifies it.

Confronted with a double-bind predicament, she refuses to submit. She’s also open to whatever opportunity might come her way. After Leeta — whom Plum decides is a witch because of some occult symbol on her boots — writes the strange word on Plum’s arm, Plum wonders whether Leeta will “turn me into a good witch or a bad witch?” Either/or doesn’t matter. Plum is just open for something new. Ready or not, her dreams are about to come true.

BOTTOM LINE: Often funny, engaging, and not nearly as complicated as it sounds, “Dietland” does grow progressively darker. This is a revenge fantasy, and with Marti Noxon at the helm, both “dark” and “funny” come with the territory.

 

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