If you were one of the millions who cringed at Insatiable’s cruel premise from the outset, it will strike you as very obvious to read Netflix’s latest teen comedy is a disaster of optics and storytelling. It’s a bad show and a bad-for-you show. Even setting aside its well-earned controversy, Insatiable isn’t well-made enough to warrant a recommendation to the most backwards-thinking and narrow-minded person in your life. A common review line has been “Teenagers deserve better.” That’s true, but really, we all do.
Real quick: Insatiable is about an overweight teenager who, after being beaten by a man, has her jaw wired shut and loses 70 pounds. When she emerges from the hospital, she returns to her high school as a drooled-over beauty queen and looks to take revenge on everyone who bullied her when she was overweight.
The premise of a young person experiencing different external treatment after a drastic weight transformation isn’t a bad one; in fact, it’s one we could use more of in popular culture, but Insatiable isn’t interested in those complicated dynamics. It’s more concerned with playing up protagonist Patty’s former weight for laughs than it is provoking conversation about how certain body types lend you privileges in the modern world.
Instead of that socially oriented version of the show, we have one that 1) uses Patty’s weight loss as justification for an act of violence against her, 2) revels in tonally strange flashbacks of an overweight Patty being followed around by the school’s tuba player, 3) stereotypes everyone in regards to their sexuality and 4) depicts overweight people, over and over, as losers in relation to the successful and empowered thin people around them. No one is safe in Insatiable. The first episode even makes light of a false accusation of sexual assault, for crying out loud.
Optimists will believe Insatiable had good satirical intentions. Maybe. There’s certainly room in its premise for commentary about body image and body politics, but the pre-eminent sense after watching the show is that it’s just really insensitive. There’s not an ounce of empathy here toward people struggling with weight, or sexuality, or a failing marriage or a bully. Everything—and again, this means everything—is played for laughs, and that makes a premise that could have been inclusive and warm feel cruel, teasing and mean-spirited. Maybe that wasn’t the intent, but it’s the read, and that matters more.
So that common critic line, “Teenagers deserve better,” almost doesn’t do the show justice. There’s real potential damage in this show regardless of its intent. This show presents overweight people as losers, LGBT people as uncomplicated and pretty people as heroes. This is cultural messaging at its worst. Teenagers are smart—smart enough to see through the nonsense Insatiable presents—but they’re impressionable, too. You shudder to think how someone insecure in their body would react to a show like this. It’s not positive. It’s not empowering. It’s not even funny.
The life of a teenager is in the most literal sense dramatic, and the best movies and shows about being a teenager play with that in creative ways. On one hand, you have something like this year’s Eighth Grade, which crafts deep-cutting cinematic moments out of tiny teen traumas, like picking up your dropped phone to find the screen has cracked. That feels true because teenagers make mountains out of molehills (understandably) and often.
The reverse side of the card is something like Riverdale. While Eighth Grade can make a young person feel seen in its alignment, Riverdale goes so far the other direction that its over-the-top dramatics color the everyday dramatics of a real teenager as dull. That clever read is in its own way empathic. How are you supposed to freak out about next week’s math quiz when Archie and Co. are literally hunting down a serial killer between sporadic bouts of gang war, infidelity and mob activity?
Insatiable isn’t in the least dramatic. It veers everything, even the serious things, toward comedy, and the takeaway is all this stuff, as related to teenagers, is a joke. That’s a complete error because when you’re living those things out—walking into school afraid of what you look like, going home to a house that doesn’t feel safe, struggling to tell your parents something essential about your identity—it’s anything but funny. It feels like the hinge of the entire rest of your life.
Movies and shows about teenagers can be funny, even darkly funny, which Insatiable claims to be. But movies like Heathers and Eighth Grade and Edge of Seventeen, plus shows like Riverdale and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, balance their humor with an intention and honesty that gives them an underlying sense of implicit understanding. Teenagers deserve better TV, but what that really means is teenagers deserve TV that makes them feel heard, because really, when you’re a teenager, you feel like no one listens to you. It’s all you want.
So then the lessons of Insatiable are myriad, the least of which is “don’t watch it, ever ever ever” and the greatest of which is “ask your kids intentional questions then shut up and let them talk.” That’s really it with this show: It’s so focused on trying to be clever, it never gives itself space to be the least bit real.
Tyler Daswick is a senior writer at Relevant. Follow him on Twitter @tylerdaswick.