Insatiable: has Netflix's controversial 'fat-shaming' show fixed itself?

Arielle Bernstein

The first season of Netflix comedy Insatiable was mired in controversy from the very first trailer, which featured the slender actor Debby Ryan donning a fat suit to play Patty Bladell, an overweight and relentlessly bullied teen who seeks revenge after she transforms into a slim beauty pageant contestant. The show was clearly intended to be a satire of pageant culture à la Drop Dead Gorgeous, but the candy-colored tones never quite squared with the show’s sense of humor, which could be recklessly cruel without ever being particularly funny. The show was panned by TV critics (it received only a 13% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), but the constant stream of press also led to a large viewership and so, somewhat amazingly, it’s returned for a second season.

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I expected Insatiable to lean even further into controversy this time around. After all, any number of shows that receive tremendous critical acclaim (Tuca & Bertie, anyone?) don’t necessarily meet the viewership necessary for Netflix to offer a series another go. But although intrigue about the show’s more inflammatory elements may have increased the number of people watching, the second season of Insatiable isn’t at all interested in controversy.

Instead, it quietly attends to its previous mistakes in a way that is almost overwhelming earnest. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way it handles Patty’s overeating. In the first season, Patty’s propensity to binge was presented as a joke; in season two, we actually see her eating disorder get taken seriously, with Patty regularly attending an overeaters anonymous support group, featuring people of all shapes and sizes who struggle with various eating issues. Everyone from her goofy pageant manager to her best friend to her mom earnestly discusses how important it is that Patty seeks help for what they now see as a very real problem.

The new season doesn’t just look at disordered eating with greater mindfulness and respect; it also attempts to do the same with plotlines involving race, gender, sexuality, and disability. And yet viewers who were concerned by how season one handled social issues are unlikely to be seduced by this new, less “problematic” season. For one thing, many of these changes feel like Band-Aid solutions, quick fixes that don’t erase the overwhelmingly crass first attempt. For all its efforts at zaniness, Insatiable still struggles to be consistently funny. Beyond some sharp jabs at pageant culture and the flagrant hypocrisy of people utterly obsessed with image, the vast majority of gags are actually pretty tame and repetitive. There is a recurrent joke, for example, about whether to call a silly tampon product “Tampazzle” or “Tampoozle” that becomes overwhelmingly unfunny the more the characters talk about it.

The most consistently interesting thing about Insatiable is not its take on pageants and beauty culture at all, but its take on sexuality, with Patty’s pageant coach, Bob Armstrong, as the best, most subversive character of the series. When Patty’s unreliable narration about her propensity to eat too much and murder becomes old hat, Bob’s insatiable longings are actually pretty thrilling. A middle-aged lawyer who loves his caboodle case and matching tie and pocket squares, Bob’s bisexual coming-out story is zany, charming and filled with unexpected self-revelations, which include a fondness for threesomes (but only if they involve his ex-wife and frenemy) and an amazing and unwavering loyalty to Patty no matter how many people she kills.

In contrast, Patty’s odd descent from bullied teen to unhinged serial killer doesn’t feel original in the way the show clearly wants it to be. There have been many depictions of teen girls in crisis in pop culture, and Patty’s character simply isn’t special enough to successfully satirize our societal obsession with pretty young women. This is particularly frustrating precisely because the female antihero genre has largely flourished over the past decade, with shows such as Orange is The New Black, Sharp Objects and Fleabag reimagining what it means for a female character to be “likable”. Likewise, viewers looking for smart shows featuring unique teen girl protagonists have a smorgasbord of options, from Sex Education to Big Mouth to Pen15.

These shows succeed because they feature protagonists who are multi-faceted, while Patty Bladell strikes the same few notes over and over again. Her transformation should feel surprising and dynamic, but we never get to know Patty well enough to understand her rage. Some of this has to do with pacing:each long episode is chock full of so many random plotlines that it’s hard to anchor ourselves to Patty’s evolution. Another problem is that this season just takes itself and Patty’s travails way too seriously to make the most of the show’s absurd potential. Moments of mayhem are often followed by on-the-nose commentary that comes across as timid rather than self-assured.

Insatiable is at its best when it eschews easy stereotypes to offer an unwavering look at how modern society often feeds self-destructive behavior. At the end of the season, Patty tells Bob, rather menacingly: “Nothing tastes as good as killing feels” – a clever rip on the famous Kate Moss quote. My hope is that the next season explores this intriguing darkness. Rather than making jokes at the expense of Patty or trying to heal her, Insatiable needs to give Patty the space to embody just how villainous self-empowerment culture can be.