Like American Gods and Riverdale, the promotional campaign for Dietland featured the classic “neon sign with a few letters flickered out in order to make a new word” (American Gods turned into “AM I A GOD” and the DINER sign for Riverdale became a concise “DIE.”)
The “T” in Dietland is turned off on its billboards, so the title of the show reveals the hidden message “DIE LAND.” Fitting: Isn’t death always the subtext of a diet?
That’s how it feels for Plum Kettle (Joy Nash) who lives an uneventful lonely life ghostwriting answers for the Letters to the Editor section of girl magazine Daisy Chain. Her existence is confined to the blocks between her home, the coffee shop where she works, and her diet meetings. Her closet is split between all-black clothes and more colorful attire that is a few sizes too small, which she’s saving for a day when she stops being Plum (her childhood nickname) and begins life again as Alicia.
At least, her life was uneventful, until the faithful “until” happens to her. In this case, she’s followed by a punk-grunge girl with bangs and bright clothing everywhere. The girl (Erin Darke) goes so far as to grab Plum’s arm and write the word “DIETLAND” on it in lipstick — a shade called, fittingly enough, Juicy Plum. Plum understandably takes this as a passive-aggressive (or rather, aggressive-aggressive) insult about her weight, until Leeta leaves her a hidden copy of a book called Dietland, an anti-diet about breaking free from society’s rules and expectations surrounding women’s bodies. Throw in a clandestine, mysterious meeting with the woman who runs Daisy Chain’s beauty closet (Tamara Tunie) and it becomes obvious that Plum is being recruited for…something.
Might it be the mysterious group “Jennifer” that we keep hearing about in background news stories? Like Fight Club‘s Project Mayhem, “Jennifer” seems to be an operation of anti-capitalist anarchist types that, instead of rebelling against credit card debt and Starbucks yuppies, has taken up arms against the sexist men in the world, the men who presumably would be making #MeToo fodder in 2018. Admittedly, dropping men out of planes is a little more dramatic than hashtags.
Shoehorned somehow into this story is Julianna Margulies in a flame-orange wig as Kitty Montgomery, the editor for whom Plum ghostwrites. We are told this is exactly the type of glamorous woman who Plum wants to be. She doesn’t do much here except stand nearly perfectly still in gorgeously tailored clothes. With all of the dead men dropping out of the sky, she’s concerned for the safety of her magazine and its executives, which accounts for the hunky detective (Adam Rothenberg) who Plum meets in the magazine waiting room.
The episode itself is a hodgepodge of voice over and animation, meant to be “fun” and “whimsical” but more often “distracting” and “making me confused about the tone the show is going for.” Still, it’s never bad to have a fiercely feminist story — or Julianna Margulies — on screen. (Recap continues on page 2)
The second episode re-ups its feminist credentials opening with an apocryphal Margaret Atwood quote (“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”) and a bang — a run-through of all of the fad diets poor Plum has subjected herself to, ending with a crash course in the “Baptist” weight loss clinic — the religious overtones are certainly intentional.
After Leeta and Julia in the beauty closet were able to get Plum to forward along her list of girls who write to Kitty (for “deprogramming”) it seems like Plum’s role within their organization is fulfilled. Leeta wants more, but Julia forbids her from contacting Plum again — after all, who knows if they can trust her.
Meanwhile, in “Jennifer”-world, a sleazy photographer follows a nymph-like model in skimpy snow-wear as she lures him to him death-by-crones — a beating by women in terrifying witch masks.
Back with Plum — thanks to Leeta’s failure to follow rules about cutting off contact — Plum finds her way to Verena Baptist, the daughter of the founder of the Baptist Diet, who turned anti-diet crusader. What Leeta calls freakishly observant comes across as more than a little stalker-y, but she convinces Plum to join her world, to come with her to a place called Calliope House where Verena holds court.
Plum is constantly overlooked by the people in her “real” life: Kitty wants her to report on a plus-sized fashion show… but will have her just watch the livestream instead of actually attending; the detective asks her to keep an eye on things in case they get interesting, because he doesn’t consider the case “sexy” enough to really put his attention into. But Leeta seems to think she’s special, and so does Verena.
In stark contrast to Kitty’s terrifying, depressing revelations about the lengths she goes through to avoid aging or looking anything less than perfect, Verena preaches self-acceptance, and the fight against misogyny.
Verena tells Plum the true story of her mother, Eulayla Baptist, whose story had a less than happy ending after the miracle success of the Baptist diet plan — namely pills, drinking, a botched stomach-stapling, and then a car crash. The diet plan with her name was always a scam, never a long-term viable solution, and so Verena closed the centers down, and began her more intimate mission of female empowerment. Verena gives Plum an offer: she will give Plum $20,000 — to pay for her weight-loss surgery if she wants it — if she follows her mysterious “program,” details TBD.
Plum thinks, what does she have to lose? She agrees to step 1, getting off her anti-depressants. And so, while Jennifer continues its heavy metal crusade against predators, Plum flushes her pills down the toilet. She tells herself to get a life, and we are inclined to believe she just did.