Downtime

What All the Critics Misunderstand About Netflix’s Insatiable

Debby Ryan and Dallas Roberts in Insatiable.
Debby Ryan and Dallas Roberts in Insatiable.
Tina Rowden/Netflix

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Warning: This post contains spoilers.

There’s a new show on Netflix called Insatiable, but, ironically, most critics seem to have had quite enough. Jen Chaney at Vulture: “The show is so bad that even passing attempts to draw parallels between itself and funnier, more insightful classics leaves a bad taste in the mouth.” Linda Holmes for NPR: “This is the purest evidence yet that Netflix has plenty of seasons of Friends and a lot of cute avatar options but no quality control.” And Roxane Gay in Refinery29: “Insatiable’s greatest sin is that it suffers from a profound lack of imagination.” Open a review of this show on the internet, and you’ll almost certainly find an excoriating critique. Ouch!

I say ouch not for Insatiable, but for the critics—because they’re all wrong.

Following the glow-up of former fat girl Patty Bladell (Debby Ryan) as she comes back from a summer of having her jaw wired shut, skinny and ready for revenge, and disgraced pageant coach Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts), who thinks she’s his ticket to a comeback, Insatiable is a surreally wild comedy that’s also low-key the most progressive thing on TV right now.

The show may be centered on Patty—Ryan is a wonderfully selfish vamp—but this is really an ensemble effort. Roberts’ Southern dandy is a delight, and the show teases us about whether he’s in the closet at every turn. Kimmy Shields nails playing Patty’s best friend, Nonnie, an unaware lesbian who’s obsessed with Patty without totally realizing why. Alyssa Milano is perfect white trash turned socialite as Armstrong’s wife, Coralee. Plus, Arden Myrin, as the devious mother of another pageant girl, screeches in the background, and Chris Gorham, an obnoxiously flawless lawyer, rips off his shirt any chance he gets. Everybody involved knows what kind of show they’re on.

So why don’t the critics? In a word, camp. Set in the most theatrical, unrealistic version of Georgia I’ve ever encountered, Insatiable is a delicious confection. Every Southern accent swans around like a teenage production of a Tennessee Williams play, each wig stacks bigger than the last, and the big goal of the season is a pageant called Miss Magic Jesus. None of this is meant to be taken seriously; it’s simply backdrop for moments of giddy pleasure, like the luscious title-card lips or Dallas Roberts’ perfect strut in high heels. That’s what camp is about. And yet haters, for some unknown reason, are still looking for the standard expectation of story or consistency.

In her critique, Gay writes, “As the season unfolds there is no shortage of plot. There is no excess this show won’t indulge.” But that’s precisely the point, to lose ourselves in the insanity. We’ve got exorcism, murders, and even a restaurant called the Weiner Taco. Insatiable is supposed to be too much. The greater the excess, the more delectable campy nuances there are to discover. Just listen to the way Roberts say “caboodle.”

Gay and other critics don’t seem able to enjoy that nuance though, and I can’t really fault them for it. They’re stuck looking for brilliance in all the wrong places—formal coherence, good politics. Insatiable isn’t serving any of that. If it were, the show wouldn’t rapidly escalate from pregnancy scare to demon possession, or make one of the sexiest scenes of the show a baptism. It’s an intentional mess where nothing should be taken seriously—except for whatever little details (the embroidered eyebrows on Nonnie’s button-down, the tossed-off line “Unfortunately, you can’t mount a bear fetus”) strike your fancy.

That’s not to say the show is without heart. Indeed, Insatiable’s campy shallows disguise occasional depths of emotion, moments that register all the more effectively for their rarity. In the first episode, Bob Armstrong is seen at his lowest, pulling off his toupee and contemplating suicide. Now that we know he’s always wearing fake hair, we’re just waiting for the humiliating moment when his hairpiece flies off. But when it finally happens in the middle of the season, the show performs a sharp turn to make it one of the most gleefully liberating scenes of all.

In Episode 10, Patty hosts a roast that gets out of hand as all the anger and resentment from being bullied resurfaces, and she burns every bridge she has. Feeling abandoned, she retreats to the only reliable comfort she’s known, and the episode ends with a grim scene of her binging an entire birthday cake in silence. The sounds of her eating and heavily breathing over the closing credits are haunting. It might not be a realistic depiction of binge eating, but it’s a damn affecting one.

All that said, perhaps you still worry, based on the reviews, that Insatiable is somehow regressive. I’d ask that you take a second look: In this wildly modern version of the South (refreshingly so, for this gay Southerner), gay acceptance is a personal battle, not a social or legislative one. Over the course of the season, Nonnie comes out and starts dating a girl, realizing how toxic her obsessive friendship with Patty is. Bob questions his own sexuality with beautiful lines like, “If demons exist, maybe bisexuals do too.” There’s even an attempt at polyamory by the end of the show. Characters balk at the idea of gay bashing and never think being queer is a problem. And sex is just a fact. When Bob’s son Brick (Michael Provost) is getting his room ready to have a girl over, Bob, rather than scold his son for even considering a hookup, just starts teasing him about his sex date. Identity and self-expression are no big deal; all these real-world debates are settled from above so we can shift our focus from who someone is to how they behave.

If you still demand a politics from Insatiable, it’s in this shift. In the second episode, Patty cries out, drunk on her changed body, “My life just started,” and Gay criticizes this as “incredibly damaging” because she seems to think that the show’s creators genuinely believe that skinniness is some kind of salvation. But for Patty, it largely turns out to be a moral cancer. The show knows this well enough and doesn’t let her or anyone else off the hook. You can be a vengeful sociopath regardless of body size. You can be a thirsty and unrepentant social climber regardless of upbringing. Shame and being bullied doesn’t give anyone a free pass to be selfish; everyone here has the chance to be a monster.

These days, we seem hungry for a certain kind of moral clarity, especially around issues of identity and marginalization. But Insatiable has cooked up something else: something that uses the language of camp and satire to glide through those issues into an unbelievably artificial world filled with surprisingly relatable human beings. If that doesn’t work for you, please continue hating it. I’ve got room for much, much more.

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