I know that there is a human creator behind Netflixs Insatiable. But this would-be binge-watch—so sloppy that it borders on inadvertent brilliance—is the exact sort of muddled glop that Netflixs algorithm might come up with on its own: a 12-hour teen soap opera inspired by Ryan Murphys irreverent and acerbic Glee and the dark comedy of Drop Dead Gorgeous, executed with the imprecise and oversexed flair of Netflixs reported mega-hit *The Kissing Booth.* Midway through the season, it takes on a sheen of the supernatural that suggests a grown-up Stranger Things, and by the end, events take a turn for the macabre that invokes—literally!—Santa Clarita Diet. The final episodes of the season pivot around a Drew Barrymore book signing; midway through, during an exorcism (?!), Jon Lovitz strolls in, wearing a trench coat and a fedora. Its enough to make anyone wonder if Netflixs whirring computer brain, knowing that you love Dark Dramas with Strong Female Leads, has decided to become sentient.
Lest this seem like a bit too much plot information, let me assure you that there is no way to spoil Insatiable, because there is no way to determine what Insatiable is about. This is a season of television that literally deals with the devil and kills off a handful of characters, but also positions one episodes climax around a character kissing another at a bikini dog wash. Yes, a bikini dog wash—the dogs are being washed, for charity, by teen girls wearing bikinis, in order to raise money for an eating-disorder charity. (It gets even more bizarre: When a rival sabotages the dog wash, theyre “saved” by members of the local L.G.B.T.Q. center, who assure the girls that the struggle to come out is just like being a flat-stomached girl nervous about wearing a bathing suit.)
Busy as the series may sound, at its core, its rather basic: teenager Patty Bladell (Debby Ryan) used to be fat, then became both thin and unspeakably selfish. This would be a fantastic, rich premise if the show knew Patty was awful; instead, its caught up in a series of high-school revenge fantasies and sexy wish fulfillment.
Along the way, Insatiable pretends to be about other things, such as pageants and evangelical Christians; Michael Ian Black, Alyssa Milano, and Dallas Roberts all co-star as irresponsible adults with variously terrible Southern accents and romantic lives. But Insatiable is unable to carry a story for more than a few episodes at a time; watching it is like enduring excruciatingly slow whiplash. Mostly, the show is an exercise in a certain tone—a cynical, superficial comedic pose.
Insatiable wants woke points for paying lip service to body positivity and including queer and racially diverse characters—but it doesnt earn them. Pattys best friend Nonnie (Kimmy Shields), for instance, is repeatedly ridiculed for presenting as gay, to a point that goes beyond dark comedy. Her crush on Patty becomes a tool that everyone uses to manipulate her—including Patty herself, who alternates between dismissing her as pathetic and repeatedly calling her for help. By the time Nonnie does come out, the rest of the characters complain that they dont know what took her so long. The bizarre signaling around homosexuality doesn't end there. Another seemingly straight character is constantly mocked for quirks that make him seem stereotypically gay—only to have it be revealed, quite late in the season, that he was in fact closeted this whole time. Thats not storytelling, thats manipulating an audience; these stories of sexuality are less character development than a series of splashy hack jobs.
All of which is a pity, because there should be something here. The Insatiable trailer stirred up a hornets nest of controversy when it was released—including a Change.Org petition with more than 200,000 signatures asking for Netflix to pull the series—because it depicted Patty getting the life she wanted after losing a lot of weight. Which is a disgusting message—but in Insatiables defense, it was merely pushing the subtext of umpteen weight-loss advertisements and Hollywood-makeover montages to their logical conclusion.
The problem is that Insatiable is a very poorly made attempt to address big, thorny, endemic social problems. Over the course of its 12 episodes, its best scene is a grotesque but arresting moment where Patty, having hit rock bottom, shoves a sheet cake into her face. It is played entirely straight. The rest of the time, the show is working with the highly fraught dynamic between young women and their own desires—and eventually sells both up the river in exchange for cheap jokes. To be sure, the show is directed at teenagers, who historically thrill to content that upsets older generations. But at present, the most socially aware and tolerant generation is our youngest one, and this sludge of problematic humor might well prove to be a problem for the show's target demographic.
Insatiables biggest issue is Patty herself, an inconsistent character with narratively convenient bouts of amnesia. At times, shes smart enough to be a good student; at others, shes naïve enough to be taken in by a Ouija board. Sometimes she means well, and other times she is purely evil; the show wants her to be both a dowdy nobody and a smoking sexpot, and happily invests in the contradiction. (Ryan, a former Disney teen star, cakes on the eyeshadow, slathers on the lipstick, and narrates in a purr that would be an asset for a phone-sex operator. But remember, as the show will never let you forget: Patty used to be fat.)
Perhaps the characters indeterminate edges are supposed to be a metaphor for the unknowable, malleable self. But more likely, its that Patty is less a character than the sheer manifestation of female hunger—a hunger that knows no rules or responsibilities, and in lieu of food chews into the tender vulnerabilities of the people around her. Patty is the victim of that hunger, and in a way, its only survivor. But why is her appetite so toxic when its also part of what makes her human? Insatiable, for all of its kvelling, has absolutely no idea.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:The Must-See Looks from the Crazy Rich Asians PremiereSonia SaraiyaSonia Saraiya is Vanity Fair's television critic. Previously she was at Variety, Salon, and The A.V. Club. She lives in New York.