Marti Noxon discovered Sarai Walker’s novel Dietland two years ago, when she was scrolling through the Audible app, looking for a new book to listen to as she drove around Los Angeles. She wasn’t looking for new material; she just wanted an amusing distraction, a bit of fluff to alleviate the hours of gridlock. The book’s bright, swimming-pool-blue cover—showing a cupcake covered in sprinkles and outfitted with a pin, like a twee hand grenade—doesn’t scream “radical feminist text.” That only made its contents all the more delicious. Because on the inside, Dietland is wild. It starts out with a Devil Wears Prada patina, telling the story of a young woman toiling in obscurity as a ghostwriter at a glossy teen magazine in Manhattan, but it quickly veers into uncharted territory.
Plum Kettle, the novel’s protagonist, is funny, tortured, brilliant, and devastating when it comes to judgments about herself. She also happens to be 300 pounds. When we meet her, she has just decided to opt for gastric bypass surgery, having tried pretty much every weight-loss method on the planet: She’s lived on cabbage soup and protein dust, green tea and Lean Cuisines. She’s starving and anxious and hovering above her own life as she takes a high dose of an antidepressant known in the novel only as “Y,” a medication she has taken since college. Plum—not her real name, but a nickname she has been unable to shake—is permanently dissatisfied: with her proportions; with her career (she wanted to be a journalist, but instead she is stuck writing advice letters to teenage girls in the voice of Kitty Montgomery, Daisy Chain magazine’s editor-in-chief); with her love life (nonexistent); and with her sense of belonging (she lives alone and eats microwave meals slowly in front of the television night after night).
There are forces swirling around Plum that are much bigger than her personal struggles. She meets a woman in Goth clothing who has been stalking her around town and who encourages her to visit “Calliope House,” an underground feminist club run by Verena Baptist, the daughter of a famous diet guru. At the same time, she goes to Daisy Chain’s sleek offices for a meeting with Kitty, and there she meets a rebellious woman in the beauty closet, who tells Plum that she has been noticing subtle anarchic undertones in her ghostwriting and wants to recruit her to a secret group devoted to “counterprogramming” against women’s magazines. (The group may or may not have ties to Calliope House; this is where it gets twisty!)
All the while, men are being murdered. On the news every day, men are dropping from the sky—literally defenestrated from airplanes—having been abducted and killed by a shadowy individual (or collective) known only as “Jennifer.” As it turns out, the men who disappear are all known abusers of women: rapists, revenge pornographers, violent harassers. Whoever, or whatever Jennifer is, it is a vigilante effort. Plum gets caught up in Jennifer’s web, too, though it would spoil the plot to tell you exactly how it all weaves together. What is important to note is that Dietland begins as a book about one woman’s insecurity and ends up as a satirical romp through the world of women fighting, sometimes bloodily, for their dignity and safety. It makes remarkably nuanced points about rape culture, fat acceptance, impossible beauty standards, and radical self-love. In other words, it is not the book you might expect if you just go by the cartoon cupcake.
Noxon began working on Dietland in 2016, when pussy hats and handmaid’s cloaks were but a glimmer in the zeitgeist’s eye, and when the allegations about Harvey Weinstein were still just an open secret in Hollywood rather than a bombshell in the national news. And yet, the show feels oddly, almost eerily prescient. These days, too many publicists and executives are quick to anoint projects with a #MeToo label, in hopes of establishing relevance through association with a swelling movement, but Dietland is the rare show that actually meets the criteria. This is not just a show about a strong woman—written and directed by women—but a show about women under attack, about systemic abuse, and what happens after those abused reach breaking point.
In fact, Dietland feels like a show so attuned to the current moment that it is hard to believe that it went through the standard slow churn of television development. Its star, Joy Nash, is mostly unknown, having previously done small stints on Twin Peaks and The Mindy Project, but she so fully inhabits the role of Plum it is as if she is inventing the whole character on the spot. In real life, Nash is a bold and outspoken body acceptance activist. She told The New York Times that she has never dieted; if people have to leave their comfort zones to observe a woman of her size dance across the small screen, she says, then she is achieving her desired effect. “I love it. I want you to be so uncomfortable,” she told the Times. “Like if I can ruin your day by making you look at me, I’m going to make you look at me.”
To begin with, Plum slumps through life meekly, swaddling her frame in dark knitwear and hiding behind a bushy row of bangs. Much of Dietland is about her body—gazing upon it, judging it, admiring it, fighting for it, watching it grow stronger—and Nash, a gifted physical actress, brings intensity to this arc. In the second episode of the season, Verena Baptist has offered to pay Plum a stipend to follow her rigid plan of empowerment (“the New Baptist Plan”), the first step of which is going off her antidepressants. Plum decides to do this cold turkey, and as a result, she begins to hallucinate. She imagines that a lascivious tiger has entered her apartment to seduce her, and she is his willing prey. Nash plays this surreal situation for high comedy; she is utterly convincing as a woman on the brink of losing her mind. She sees tropical plants blooming all over her apartment. She imagines being licked all over her body by a large, scratchy tongue.
This delusion is bizarre, but it works within the larger world of the show. Dietland lives somewhere between absurdist theater and New York noir; its characters are almost caricatures, even when the anxieties they feel are very real. Julianna Margulies plays Plum’s foil and boss, Kitty Montgomery, the alpha-bitch editor of Daisy Chain who clomps around in couture and sports an unnatural mane of cherry-red hair. She looks like a cross between Miranda Priestly and Willy Wonka, and it is clear Margulies delights in playing a scheming ice queen. Robin Weigert plays Verena Baptist, a charismatic leader in ivory cashmere, who reveals to Plum that her mother, the successful inventor of a famously restrictive diet course, was a depressive who knew her own plan was sadistic and unsustainable. As Plum bounces between these two eccentric women, both of whom try in various ways to control her life, she starts to tap into a hidden power of her own.
It makes sense that Noxon, a television writer and producer who got her big break with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, saw a new television show unspooling as she listened to Walker’s book: Both Buffy and Dietland are partly revenge fantasies, centered on strong, willful women. After Buffy ended, Noxon went on to work on two seasons of Mad Men, created the anti-romantic comedy Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for Bravo, and co-created the series UnREAL, which exposes the dark underbelly of making reality TV. Noxon then started on a more personal project, To the Bone, a Netflix original film that she wrote and directed, starring Lily Collins, about a young woman’s life-threatening struggle with anorexia.
Noxon has been very vocal about her own battle with disordered eating (at one point in high school she weighed 69 pounds) and about her mission to highlight the painful, complex relationships many women have with their own bodies as a result of trauma, the media, and crushing societal pressure. Around the same time she began developing Dietland for AMC, Noxon started adapting for television the Gillian Flynn novel Sharp Objects, whose heroine is struggling with the aftershocks of abuse. Together with To the Bone and Sharp Objects, Noxon has referred to Dietland as the third part of a “self-harm trilogy.” She is making a triptych about female pain and the many ways women try to sublimate it. To the Bone is a tone poem about deprivation; Sharp Objects is a crime thriller about a woman who cannot stop turning on her own body; and Dietland, which may, in the end, be the most extreme show out of the three, is an outrageous vision of what might happen when women start getting really angry.
The specter of Jennifer, the radical secret group that has been kidnapping and killing rapists, haunts the series, and it is likely where many people will find the most immediate and electric connection to current events. Violence against women is a daily and terrifying reality—one study has estimated that in the United States, 20 people per minute suffer physical abuse from an intimate partner. And yet, I sense that the Jennifer plotline, in which an anonymous cabal of angry women band together to start disposing of dangerous men, will still prove controversial, and disturbing, to some. It pushes viewers to ponder what might happen in a world in which women decided to take justice into their own hands, and in which that justice turned out to be unforgiving and brutal.
Perhaps even a few years ago, Dietland might have seemed gratuitous; a show about extremism. But now, just like The Handmaid’s Tale, it plays as a grisly parable about very active tensions. How can women break free of misogyny and break cycles of harm? Does change come from subverting magazines? Undoing diet plans? Dethroning abusers? Dietland doesn’t just stare at these questions, it bites into them with sharp teeth, letting the juice run.