Tina Rowden/Netflix

Opinion

Netflix's Controversial 'Insatiable' Isn't Easily Digestible—and That's Good

When Netflix's new original series Insatiable arrived on the streaming service earlier this month, it was accompanied by no shortage of controversy. Three weeks earlier, the trailer for the satirical dramedy had dropped—and was met with a wave of outrage from naysayers who wanted it canceled immediately.

The two-minute video introduced audiences to 17-year-old Patty Bladell (Debby Ryan), an obese emotional eater who loses weight after a homeless man punches her in the mouth, breaks her jaw and consigns her to a summer of drinking her meals through a straw. Now slender and drop-dead gorgeous, thanks to her liquid diet, the former "Fatty Patty" has one goal in life: to get revenge on everyone who ever tormented her for being overweight. To that end, she sets out to show up her bullies (all of whom happen to be teen beauty queens) by joining the pageant circuit herself, where she'll get the last laugh and a spangly tiara.
Of course, the trailer wasn't the whole story; in practice, it's actually Patty's deep-seated rage, resentment and insecurity (and not her weight loss, which happens offscreen in the first few minutes of the pilot) that drive the plot forward. But the ugly-duckling premise (along with the visual provocation of Debby Ryan wearing the world's lumpiest fat suit) inspired the immediate launch of a petition to cancel the show. "It perpetuates not only the toxicity of diet culture, but the objectification of women's bodies," the petition reads. "We still have time to stop this series from being released and causing a devastation of self-doubt in the minds of young girls who will think that to be happy and be worthy, they need to lose weight."

The petition didn't kill the show, but it did poison the well; when the first season dropped, it was savaged by critics, largely on the grounds that it was morally irresponsible. (BuzzFeed actually denounced it twice: "Here's Why Insatiable Is Actually Incredibly Offensive" was followed three days later by "13 Ways Insatiable Is Really Fucking Problematic," just in case anyone was still undecided.)
And that's a shame. Because while Insatiable is not (nor does it set out to be) a model of political correctness—and while it should not be considered in any way instructive, except maybe when it comes to using butt tape to create gravity-defying cleavage in a V-neck T-shirt—it's also incredibly successful at being what it is: a candy-colored absurdist romp through the dark hearts of hungry people, each with a hole inside that they fear can never be filled.

Food, sex, love, acceptance: Insatiable lines up a veritable buffet of desperate needs, and then spends 12 episodes letting its characters act like ridiculous, self-sabotaging monsters as they scramble for satisfaction. There's Patty, whose binge-eating disorder and anger issues mask a deep, all-consuming fear of abandonment. There's Bob (Dallas Roberts), who craves the validation of coaching a pageant winner after being treated all his life like a disappointment. Coralee (Alyssa Milano), Bob's wife, aches to escape the memory of her white-trash, trailer-park childhood by earning a spot in the Junior League. And that's only to name a few; virtually every character on Insatiable, from the leads to the supporting roles, is hungry for something—a thing they're afraid to name, but that drives them to increasingly desperate places.

But despite the dire subject matter, those desperate places are also deeply, darkly funny. And while Insatiable sometimes meanders away to get lost in redundant scenarios or dumb physical comedy, it also lands a lot of excellent jabs—at bullshit beauty expectations, at sexist double standards, at the weird-ass pageant culture that overtly sexualizes contestants while demanding they never actually (heaven forfend!) have sex. But most of all, it lampoons the outrageous, spangled, dancing and occasionally violent spectacle that human beings put on when they're trying to pretend that they aren't utterly empty inside.
Food, sex, love, acceptance: Insatiable lines up a veritable buffet of desperate needs, and then lets its characters act like self-sabotaging monsters as they scramble for satisfaction.
If a staring contest with that particular abyss makes you uncomfortable, then sure, Insatiable isn't for you. If, on the other hand, you can see the humor in:

a) two grown-ass, married, (ostensibly) straight men hashing out their longstanding eighth-grade grudge with an argument over which one of them will play Patrick Swayze's character in a male-on-male Dirty Dancing routine;
b) a falsely accused molester realizing that, thanks to modern #MeToo conventions, calling the accuser a liar has virtually the same social repercussions as if he'd actually committed the crime; or
c) a version of the Stephen King novel Gerald's Game where the trapped heroine, rather than nearly bleeding to death, escapes her handcuffs by lubricating her wrists with six Twinkies' worth of cream filling?

Then, Insatiable has just what you need. After all, people do crazy things when they're hungry.
For those who hunger for something spicier, Insatiable is a blast, and a treat, even when it's a little hard to swallow.
For fans of late 1980s and '90s pop culture, there's a lot about Netflix's new series that's familiar, in a fun way. It's not just the overt references to Drew Barrymore's entire oeuvre (although anyone who's seen Never Been Kissed will recognize instantly the Josie Grossie-Fatty Patty connection). From the set design to the satire, this is a series in the tradition of Drop Dead Gorgeous, Strangers with Candy, Saved! and, of course, Heathers—a film that would probably face just as much if not more backlash than Insatiable if it were released today. (Indeed, the fact that the already-completed TV reboot of Heathers has been indefinitely shelved seems to confirm this.) Like these favorites, Insatiable is provocative, ridiculous, occasionally crude. It punches in all directions; no one is spared because no one is immune from the issues it seeks to drag into the light.

In short, it's no surprise that it failed to satisfy an audience of picky consumers who want their entertainment in the form of easily digestible, socially conscious moral messaging. But for those who hunger for something spicier—and don't mind if every joke isn't to their taste—Insatiable is a blast, and a treat, even when it's a little hard to swallow.

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