Here are the three most common questions I had while watching all 12 episodes of Netflix’s Insatiable: Who, exactly, is this show for? What are the writers even attempting to do? And, most of all, why did anyone sign off on this?
When Netflix released the trailer for Insatiable, a dark hour-long comedy that The CW originally passed on, the backlash came quickly. The series follows “Fatty Patty” (Debby Ryan) who, after having her jaw wired shut, loses a significant amount of weight, joins the pageant circuit, and vows revenge on those who have hurt her. The main concern was over fat-shaming (which, unsurprisingly, turned out to be entirely justified) and resulted in a Change.org petition calling for its cancelation. Over 200,000 people have signed. Needless to say, expectations were low going into the series even though many people involved — including creator Lauren Gussiss (former Dexter writer) who talked about her own personal struggles in a thoughtful interview with Vanity Fair — urged everyone to wait to pass judgment until we’ve seen the show. As it turns out, Insatiable‘s misguided approach to weight only barely scratches the surface of everything wrong — and deeply upsetting — with the series.
When we first meet Patty (Ryan dons a fat suit in the pilot), she’s fat, bullied, and miserable. A homeless stranger taunts her so she punches him and he punches back, landing her in the hospital on a liquid diet. Cut to three months later: Skinny Patty, seventy pounds lighter and super hot, is ready to change her life … mostly by being a terrible person. Sure! The bullied-kid-taking-control-of-their-life is a basic plot with potential but there are two major problems at play. We barely learn much else about Patty throughout the whole season, which makes it impossible to care about what’s happening let alone root for her. And, oddly enough, for all the ado made about Patty’s weight in the trailer, Insatiable doesn’t actually seem keen on putting in the work to interrogate that aspect of her life.
Since we barely see the “before” of her “makeover,” we can’t draw comparisons or appreciate inner changes; it doesn’t explore the specifics of how this shaped her personality or the struggles of being fat in a world that is actively and unfairly cruel to people who don’t fit into an ideal body standard. Instead, it mostly promotes this world. Patty’s old weight is generally only brought up to remind us that Patty was fat, to have other characters (and sometimes Patty herself) spew fatphobic insults, to lazily compare her Bad Life to her Good Life through the lens of Patty using her new body to her advantage, whether it’s tampering with evidence (don’t ask) or seducing the boys who used to ignore her. Insatiable aims to be a satire but often unintentionally comes off as a straight-forward glamorization of thinness — and we already have plenty of that. Because Insatiable doesn’t dig deep enough, the decision to hinge this story — a story purportedly about empowerment, female rage, bullying culture, accepting yourself, and all that good stuff — on weight-l0ss as a catalyst ends up feeling absurd. You could build the same basic narrative with any bullied, outcast teenage girl and avoided the whole controversy from the start.
But let’s put aside the weight conversation for a second — BuzzFeed’s Jenna Guillaume penned an enlightening, in-depth review centered on those concerns — and talk about what else went wrong. After Patty’s transformation, she meets Bob (Dallas Roberts), an attorney and pageant coach who readily admits his only interest in Patty lies in her body. Bob’s been disgraced because pageant mother Regina (Arden Myrin), angry about her daughter’s loss, spontaneously and falsely accuses him of molesting her daughter. His reputation is ruined. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him but it’s impossible to ignore that the writers chose to make one of their protagonists a man falsely accused of sexual misconduct at a time when Hollywood is finally reckoning with its own rape culture — when we’re fighting to make people understand why we should believe women and repeatedly explaining why it’s harmful (and false!) to perpetuate the idea that women have something to gain from making up fake rape accusations. Perhaps now isn’t the best time to promote a storyline where a woman haphazardly lies about molestation out of vengeance and defeat.
And if, for whatever reason, you do think that storyline is necessary then maybe it’s best to stop there. Maybe Insatiable shouldn’t also include plots about both Patty and another high school pageant queen both inexplicably desperate to sleep with Bob. (Patty and Bob’s relationship is often described with “partners” or “soulmates.”) Maybe a twist shouldn’t be that Regina is actually the one committing statutory rape with an underage boy, in a plot that is quickly forgotten about. Maybe there shouldn’t be a scene of one adult man showing another adult man a sex tape featuring two teenagers.
But the awfulness of Insatiable isn’t (just) because it continually misses the mark when taking on “taboo” topics or because it’s consistently tone-deaf. It’s also, simplistically, poorly written — a strange amalgamation of about a half-dozen different programs all competing for attention. It’s overflowing with nonsensical plots, truly bizarre escalations, and stereotypical characters. The pageant circuit that serves as a throughline isn’t enough to keep things on track; it zigs and zags into kidnappings, murder (more than one!), soap opera-ish “who is really the father?” moments, alcoholism, demonic possessions (yup!), religious awakenings, suicidal ideation, and whatever else it’s in the mood for at any given moment. It never whispers; only yells. (The greatest feat of Insatiable, perhaps, is that it makes Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens seem positively subtle in comparison.) Characters are frustratingly underwritten (Patty’s basic traits switch to fit in with what’s happening, rather than building storylines around her established character, even though this is, ostensibly, her show), plots are introduced and forgotten about with no rhyme or reason or any real connection to the main narrative. It’s rough to watch some talented actors — Roberts, Ryan, Christopher Gorham (who tries his best to lean in to the camp), Alyssa Milano, etc. — fully commit to the material but get nothing in return.
Yes, of course, Insatiable is meant to be an edgy satire, to remark and reflect on how screwed up our culture and ideals are — which is a good goal to have! I want that show! But you have to be smart and thoughtful to be satirical; you can’t be edgy for edgy’s sake. You have to research, commit, write from a place where you love your characters but understand their motivations. You can’t throw buzzwords at the wall and expect it all to just magically come together. And you have to depict everything with genuine humor whereas Insatiable, too often, confuses humor with meanness.
Arguably, what’s most exasperating about Insatiable is that there are brief, miniscule hints that it truly does have good intentions, that it could’ve been something worth watching. It tries, occasionally, such as when it features two different coming-out storylines: Patty’s best friend Nonnie (Kimmy Shields), who is mostly characterized by her overdone crush on Patty and, later, an older man coming to terms with his bisexuality. They’re noble intentions but neither sticks the landing (the latter is especially clumsy and borderline offensive). There are also moments, specifically in later episodes, where Insatiable almost has interesting things to say about Patty’s relationship to food and her body, and inner ugliness, and self-protective measures. But it never quite gets there, as if Insatiable is hesitant to commit to even the tiniest bit of earnestness for fear it loses the edge it so prides itself on.