Satire isn’t easy. As Malcolm Gladwell discusses on “The Satire Paradox,” an episode of his podcast, “The Revisionist History,” some satirists like Stephen Colbert have mastered the craft of combining satire and comedy in an effective way, but even he is not perfect. Despite Colbert’s persona on his Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report” being a caricature of conservative news pundits, many conservatives still found Colbert’s ironic lambasting of the left funny in a one-dimensional way. Though the jokes were being made in a satirical way, they still found the jokes in and of themselves funny. Though this helped contribute to what made Colbert a master of comedy, when satire is misused, the point being made can be ineffective and the satire can end up falling into the trap of furthering the ideas it was created to rebuke.
Enter “Insatiable,” the new Netflix comedy-drama from Lauren Gussis, starring Debby Ryan as Patty “Fatty Patty” Bladell. Patty is an overweight teenager who goes through hell as a result of her weight. She gets rejected by her lifelong crush, antagonized as she walks down the hallway and humiliated at every turn. Her life proceeds this way until one night a homeless man makes fun of her weight and she punches him in the face, he punches her back and breaks her jaw, meaning she can’t eat for three months and as a result loses 70 pounds and returns to school with the intent of exacting revenge upon all of those who have wronged her.
If this sounds like a premise that’s rife with controversy, that’s because it is. I went into the show aware of its premise and optimistic that it would be a deeper story about the issues it seemed like it would superficially address in the trailer. The result? It is deeper… kind of.
The show has a long, complicated and constantly changing narrative. After losing the weight Patty and her best friend, Nonnie Thompson (Kimmy Shields), begin to drift apart, Patty almost goes on a murderous rampage and she meets Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts), who becomes her lawyer and beauty pageant coach (yes, she starts doing pageants). Bob Armstrong and his wife, Coralee (Alyssa Milano), are rivals with Bob (Christopher Gorham) and Etta Mae Barnard (Carly Hughes) whose daughter Magnolia (Erinn Westbrook) also does pageants. Then of course there is Magnolia’s boyfriend Brick (Michael Provost) who is Bob and Coralee’s son, who is also cheating on Magnolia with Regina Sinclair (Arden Myrin), whose adoptive daughter Dixie (Irene Choi) is also a pageant competitor. On top of all that, Regina has falsely accused Bob Armstrong of being a sex offender and he keeps finding himself in compromising situations with underage women. Sprinkle in a mix of fat jokes, food jokes, demon possessions, unborn twins, drunken murders, three coming-out stories, bi-phobia, a diverse cast, multiple other LGBTQ characters, psychotic breaks, eating disorders and a throuple, and you just about have an idea of what the show is about.
That’s a lot to process. At the heart of it all is a message about body positivity and self-love struggling to fight its way to the surface. In some ways the show tackles some of its heavy subject matter in accessible and relatable ways through humor. The exploration of the difficulties of discovering and exploring one’s sexuality and the initial doubt and self-hatred that can come as a result of someone’s situation is depicted very well. However, in order to achieve that, the show has to depict the unwillingness of characters to accept who they really are. In the process, they say things that may offend some, but the hope is that others will see this and learn that going through this process is normal and okay, and that things can possibly get better.
Then there’s the main topic the show tries to handle, Patty’s weight change and what it means. I think it would be wrong to say at any point that this show supports body-shaming. There is a clear throughline that losing weight did not make Patty happy. She finds very little value in the fact that she looks thinner. This bubbles up in a few surprisingly touching and emotional moments where Patty’s friends, and later herself, explicitly state that their bodies don’t define what makes them beautiful and that Patty was loved and beautiful before she lost weight. These moments resonated with me and hit me as some of the best in the show’s long 12-hour first season. But there are also frequent examples of the show portraying rather uncomfortable scenes of Patty enduring insults and ridicule at the expense of her weight, including a particularly haunting end to an episode where Patty sits in silence and eats a cake with her bare hands. The credits roll in without any music, just the disturbing sounds of someone eating as much as they can. But these moments are rarely used to make the audience laugh. The audience is supposed to be uncomfortable and outraged, and sympathize with Patty.
Is the depiction of these things inherently providing fuel for someone who makes fun of fat people to indulge themselves and laugh, like Colbert with his conservative audience? Potentially. Does that nullify the good things the show tries to do and say? I don’t know. It comes down to the individual experience and what the viewer takes away. As someone who has struggled with my weight and been targeted for it throughout my life, this show resonated with me and by the end made me feel like I was affirmed and allowed to love myself. That may not be everyone’s experience, however.
The show can often get too caught up in its own fast-paced drama to effectively communicate these points and it’s a shame. Overall I would recommend it, it’s a fun but heavy show, and its messages and rhetoric are worth discussing in our culture.