“Insatiable,” Netflix’s latest controversial, teen-oriented release, arrives this weekend on the streaming service. Crass, oafish and painfully unfunny for 12 seemingly endless episodes, “Insatiable” attempts to be a satire without having a point of view. On paper the concept looks fine. The show is written by Lauren Gussis, a veteran TV writer who has worked on hit shows like Showtime’s “Dexter.” Her work here has been defended by the network as a sort of hyperbolic retelling of her own adolescence. But the result is at best painfully misguided and at worst self-indulgently tasteless.
There have been concerned rumblings about the series ever since the trailer dropped a few weeks ago. Potential viewers could tell something was amiss — but no one knew exactly how bad it was.
There have been concerned rumblings about the series ever since the trailer dropped a few weeks ago. Potential viewers could tell something was amiss — but no one knew exactly how bad it was. And Netflix’s decision to keep reviews embargoed until 48 hours before release meant no one could find out either.
The trailer introduced us to “Fatty Patty” aka actress Debbie Ryan, a graduate of Disney’s teen star machine, who we first meet wearing a fatsuit and saying things like: “While others were out losing their virginity, I was at home stuffing another hole.” The fatsuit is almost immediately cast aside, however, after Patty’s jaw is wired shut and she is transformed into a thin and glamorous young woman on the hunt for revenge.
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Given this plot focus, many worried that the show was going to set a terrible example for teenage girls, who already are constantly assaulted by toxic messaging around their bodies. Do we really need another show suggesting one’s life only begins at Size 0? A change.org petition demanding the show be pulled circulated quickly, garnering over 225,000 signatures as of this writing.
If only the show’s problems were limited to fat-shaming.
Lines like “skinny is magic” (repeated more than once by different characters) are merely the tip of the iceberg. The first episode features a slur for transgender people I thought had been discarded at the end of the last century. The word is brought up in a comical context, suggesting showrunners hope audiences at home will laugh at the sight of perfect people saying naughty words. In reality, it betrays the laziness of a series that repeatedly reaches for the lowest hanging fruit. That Netflix executives watched this, greenlit it and are now defending it is deeply concerning.
To be fair, the show seems to be trying for parody. But attempts to skewer shallowness in all its forms fall increasingly flat as the episodes lean into offensive stereotypes and tropes. To wit, the "high school revenge" plot of the trailer is mostly over by the end of episode two. By then, Patty has moved on to a new plan, in which she seduces her lawyer Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts) and tries to break up his marriage to wife Coralee (Alyssa Milano). A litigator by day, Armstrong’s real passion is coaching beauty queens. Or at least it was, until his last client’s mother publicly (and falsely) accused him of molesting her underaged daughter in a fit of bad sportsmanship. Armstrong sees Patty as his ticket to redemption, once he gets her off the hook by having her claim fear of sexual assault.
Jokes follow about teen molestation, statutory rape, the intelligence (or lack thereof) of beauty queens, whether or not girls of a certain age have sexual agency and how middle-class strivers in our society will protect their class markers at any cost. This is all mixed in with classist and racist stereotypes about people who grow up in impoverished circumstances. But wait there’s more! Within a couple more episodes the show has sprawled out to encompass neighbors, rivals, ex-lovers, competing beauty coaches and additional beauty contestants. These characters bring with them subplots about sexting, revenge porn and trans acceptance, plus a pair of coming out stories, one of which is handled in such an insensitive manner I had to double check to make sure the year was still 2018.
The show wants to turn these scenes into teachable moments, in some sort of twisted vision of a modern after-school special. But the (clumsy) moralizing is constantly undermined by poor execution and terrible writing. These “random moments of virtue” might stand out in a show where the satire was actually biting. Instead they’re just random zags into schmaltz before zigging back into tastelessness.
The situation is not helped by the series’ length. Netflix clearly believes that part of its generalist mandate involves communicating sweeping life lessons to the impressionable next generation. The results so far have not been good. “13 Reasons Why,” for instance, was supposed to be a show about the need for compassion and kindness, and how misogyny and victim-blaming are as destructive a force as disease. But for many, it felt like a show that glorified suicide; the follow up this past May, which included a brutal male rape scene, was not an improvement.
Whereas “13 Reasons Why” was a drama, “Insatiable” has tried to illuminate the often difficult lives of teenagers through comedy. But by trying too hard to tackle too many topics it ends up failing to make much of a statement on any of them, and by including storylines where adults sleep with teenagers as if this was merely a matter of course, it undermines its authority to say anything at all. A show that actually tackled issues like body image, sexuality and class divides with humor and grace could have been a grand slam. But this nine-hour mess is one big miss.
CORRECTION (Aug. 10, 2018, 10:41 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a Netflix series. It’s “13 Reasons Why,” not “13 Reasons More.”
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.