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Netflix’s Insatiable is somehow both obscenely cruel and terminally dull

When Insatiable’s trailer dropped, people expected the show to be bad. The reality is worse.

Debby Ryan and Dallas Roberts in Insatiable Netflix
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Insatiable, the controversial new show from Netflix that debuts on Friday, is simultaneously one of the cruelest and most poorly crafted shows I have ever seen.

It spends all of its time striving desperately to reach the status of third-tier Ryan Murphy and falling flat. It has Murphy’s gleeful sadism in spades, but none of his manic camp energy; it has his treacly didacticism, but none of his genuine emotion.

When Insatiable’s trailer premiered in July to instant, furious backlash, a widespread response was that it was wrong to judge a show by its trailer. Watch it before you pass judgment, people advised. I have now watched every episode of Insatiable, and I can tell you whatever you might be imagining from the trailer is nothing. The reality is much, much worse.

Insatiable tells the story of 17-year-old Patty (Debby Ryan, wearing a very fake-looking fat suit for the first few minutes of the pilot), whose classmates have inflicted upon her the nickname Fatty Patty. Patty spends all of her time binge-eating to compensate for her loneliness — because Insatiable is smugly sure that fat people are losers — until a homeless guy punches her in the face.

The series presents this encounter as the miracle that Patty needs. Her jaw is wired shut. She is on a liquid diet for three months. Once the wires are removed, Ryan emerges from her fat suit to reveal Patty’s magical new skinny body, and Patty begins to seek her revenge. Teaming up with disgraced pageant coach Bob (Dallas Roberts), she sets off on a quest to win a beauty pageant and prove to all of her classmates that while she might have once been a loser, she is now the winner of all winners.

Just to be clear: What it takes to change Patty’s life is violence. She trades getting punched in the face for the chance to have the body of a teenage starlet. It’s a fantasy that is familiar to many women — if only someone would hurt me so that I couldn’t eat, or if only I got some kind of horrible wasting disease or a tapeworm, I could fix my body and then my real life would start — and one that Insatiable embraces wholeheartedly.

This fantasy is gross. It is born out of violent self-loathing, out of the desire to hurt and maim and punish a body that our culture has decided is unacceptable.

Ostensibly, Insatiable knows how gross of an idea this is. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, showrunner Lauren Gussis described the show as a subversion of the “crazy fever-dream revenge fantasy” she nursed as an overweight teenager. “I got to see how it turned out. ... It didn’t turn out great,” Gussis said. “That’s what was healing. That’s the thing that released me.”

And certainly, it’s possible to make a decent TV show that explores this fantasy: AMC’s Dietland, for instance, allows its fat protagonist to wallow in the idea of hurting her body to “fix” it. But Dietland is clear about how toxic the fantasy is, and explores its protagonist’s hatred of her body without reflecting that hatred back at the audience.

Insatiable is not able to pull off the same trick. When it delves into Patty’s self-loathing, it can’t avoid suggesting that she was right to hate herself, that fat people should hate themselves, and that they should hurt their bodies until they get better — which is to say skinny. The newly thin Patty might not be perfect, but the show never drops the subtext that hey, at least she’s not fat anymore, and that’s what really matters.

And it doesn’t even manage to craft its message well. Throughout its 12-episode run, Insatiable crawls its way through a series of tired, stale gags, punching ever further downward, to finish with the most subdued of whimpers in its finale. Insatiable is not only cruel and fatphobic; it’s boring, too.

Here are nine things you should know about Insatiable’s first (and hopefully only) season. Spoilers follow.

Debby Ryan in Insatiable
Yes, Patty’s fatsuit always looks this fake.

1) The show’s catchphrase is “skinny is magic.”

“Trust me, skinny is magic,” pageant coach Bob tells an insecure Patty early in the season. Bob himself, he confides, used to be fat, and now that he’s gotten skinny, his life is much better.

Patty briefly doubts Bob’s sage words. “Skinny isn’t magic!” she cries when she fears that she has wished a man to death out of sheer rage, thus demonstrating that she is still the same seething ball of fury when she is skinny as she was when she was fat. But by the next episode, she’s back on the bandwagon.

“I knew skinny was magic,” she muses as she shops for bras. But, she allows, there’s a single downside to skinny: “The new Patty was more powerful, but with much smaller boobs.”

2) In the first six minutes of the show, there’s a false accusation of pedophilia and sexual assault

When Bob takes Patty under his wing, he is a ruined man. The angry mother of one of his clients has falsely accused him of pedophilia.

“HE TOUCHED HER HOO-HOO!” the mother shrieks, rushing the pageant stage.

Bob denies everything, but to no avail. “I was an accused molester saying the victim made it up,” he tells us in voiceover. “Which was almost as bad as if I’d actually done it.”

As he speaks, the camera lingers over the angry mother miming various … molesty acts, I guess? … over her pelvis. There’s a long, long pause while Insatiable waits for you to laugh.

3) Insatiable is pretty sure there’s nothing as funny as a closeted gay person with a crush …

A recurring gag in the first half of the season is that Patty’s best friend is totally gay for her but in denial about it, and this is supposed to be hilarious, because gay people are as pathetic and worthy of mocking as fat people.

4) … unless it’s a closeted gay person who straight people are crushing on

Another recurring gag revolves around the fact that pageant-loving and fashion-conscious Bob presents as a stereotype of a gay man, but women fall at his feet. For much of the first half of the season, Patty is crushing madly on him (the plotline disappears without a trace of explanation several episodes in, which is maybe for the best), and Insatiable seems to think it’s mining an incredible amount of humor Patty swooning while a pastel-clad Bob does pelvic crunches.

Debby Ryan on Insatiable
Patty does wear some impressive hats, we’ll give her that.

5) There’s a weird extended gag in which a tiny Asian girl is rapping along to the radio, but she just raps the phrase “my n-word” whenever the n-word comes up, and it seems like the show thinks that’s really funny

I don’t even know.

6) Said Asian girl also has her front teeth filed into shark fangs under her veneers

You know, the way Asian people do, according to Insatiable.

7) A trans character is used as a prop to illuminate Patty’s self-loathing

When circumstances conspire such that Patty must be seen in public in a bikini, she finds herself commiserating with a trans woman. See, the trans woman feels that her body will never be feminine enough, and the newly thin Patty feels that her body will never be skinny enough, and obviously — Insatiable suggests — Patty’s insecurity is the deeper and more meaningful of the two here.

8) The last few episodes are better than the first few

In its back half, Insatiable makes a stab at sincerity rather than snark, and while it’s not entirely successful, there are a few half-decent plotlines. Bob begins to explore his sexuality in an arc that is, you know, not as insulting as you might have expected after watching the first half of the season, and Patty makes a weak gesture toward learning that even when she was fat, she was not a loser. It’s all way too little, too late, but it’s there.

Plus, my least favorite character on this show full of unlikable characters gets violently beaten to death, and I won’t lie, in that moment, I bumped the show’s rating up a full half a point.

9) Patty ate her twin in the womb

The joke here is that she was a compulsive overeater even before she was born. That’s just the level of hilarity you can look forward to with Insatiable.

Insatiable’s 12-episode first season will begin streaming in full on Netflix on Friday.