First Review: Is Netflix’s Insatiable harmful, or was the controversy premature?

The 12-episode first season of Insatiable comes to Netflix early August, but it will not air quietly. Within ten days of its release date, over 200,000 signatories have joined a Change.org petition seeking to have the show cancelled before it screens. The petitioners have rallied against the new series, intimating that the show objectifies women and promotes harmful messages about body image.

There’s no denying that the concept of the series is archaic. The series follows the uprising of the newly slim Patty (Debby Ryan) as she works to find her place in the pageant landscape under the guidance of her coach and lawyer Bob (Dallas Roberts) and her best friend Nonnie (Kimmie Shields). Patty isn’t really noticed by her peers in the series until she becomes thin.

Determining beauty by appearance and not substance is damaging. It’s a concept unwelcome in 2018. For the 200,000 signatories however, the concept was all they had. They didn’t have the substance of 12 separate forty plus minute episodes. All it took to accumulate those signatures was a one-minute trailer and a brief synopsis. It’s an empowered response which heralds the end of tolerance for offensive and insensitive material. But does it also dismiss the substance?

There’s enough questionable material in the series to likely keep the minds of most who’ve signed the petition unchanged. But the effect of Patty’s transition is not exactly happy-go-lucky. Patty’s life gets considerably worse after she loses weight, and the newfound attention she draws could be attributed as much to her altered personality as her looks. The motif within Insatiable seems to be that Patty becomes uglier with her transition, as she forgoes former friendships, loses track of her morals and becomes increasingly self-centered.

In the context of a changing miss universe (as of 2018 the swimsuit contest no longer forms any criterion), there’s more that could be said about the shape of beauty, but there are still some important characters carrying valuable sentiments in smaller doses (see Dee played by Ashley D Kelley and Nonnie played by Kimmie Shields). A review written solely on the trailer and premise could find no quality in this series, but such a review would be a facile approach to a critic’s work.

Beyond the show’s controversies, its best and some of its worst moments come from other sources. The pilot episode of Insatiable covers every high-school trope in its rough forty-minute foray. There’s the overweight girl who is slightly outcast in a social setting, there’s the best friend who is in love with the protagonist and there’s a fallen lawyer trying to redeem himself through a client.

Insatiable sheds the formulas when it begins to develop the peculiar relationship between Bob and Patty. After taking a beating from a homeless guy Patty becomes driven like she’s destined to perish at the end of each day. She lacks any predictability and it’s her failure to function as the insatiable girl that she becomes which gives the show its edge.

It’s the same sort of edginess audiences would be familiar with from Andrew Fleming’s cult classic The Craft. While Fleming is only responsible for directing two episodes of Insatiable, the style he brings in the early episodes carries throughout the rest of the series. And even if the show lacks the spark of the 90’s teen witch hit, Insatiable borrows some of the better elements of the outsider narrative.

Insatiable carries another of its creators flare as Dexter co-executive producer Lauren Gussis leads the series into a darker place. The comedy, while often relying on clever and sporadic one-liners, tends to be a little macabre in its surroundings. It generally works well, but there are moments when the comedy and characters are so mismatched you can’t help but cringe.

Beneath the misplaced skits and the misguided messages about weight, there is a narrative with engaging stories to tell. There are intense rivalries, there’s real character development, even through the first seven episodes, and for the most part, Patty feels like a real person (in sort of the same way that Patrick Bateman felt like a real person). We see her insecurities and imperfections manifest in erratic outbursts, but we also learn about her motive for wanting to win.

The characters and performances are an eclectic mix. Debby Ryan adds the edge to Patty and Dallas Roberts is a jovial and colourful Bob. While the supporting actors feel a little lifeless, the main issue with the characters stems from the writing. The monologues from Patty and Bob, while often well written, tend to lend the characters most of their personality, instead of writing it in elsewhere in the series.

The characters are also regularly driven by shallow motives. Every time a supporting character turns to an internal and selfish motive, they become less likeable and the problem is that almost every character eventually does it. There are some strange relationships in the series too, like that between Bob and his son (or that he even has a daughter), which never really add any context or life to the first seven episodes.

The beauty pageant occupies a strange space in American film and TV. Rural pageants especially have been captured as a hallmark of the United States, yet to the rest of the world they remain something to be unlocked. We get clues from films about what small time pageants can mean to the competition, but however close we come to understanding, there’s always a certain cultural impasse that keeps most of us from ever empathising with the Olive Hoovers or the Honey Boo-Boos.

Insatiable is not an entirely new perspective on the world of pageants, but it does work to chip away at the mysterious allure of competing in them. Through the first seven episodes, the series builds on the foundations set by Andrew Fleming to give the characters and their stories a sense of depth. Whether it deserves its feature length run in respect of its questionable narrative choices is another question.

 

TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Insatiable comes to Netflix on August 10th.

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