The first thing we watch Plum Kettle (Joy Nash) do in “Dietland” is look in a mirror. She is blunt about how she sees herself: “Fat. It’s O.K. I’m allowed to say it.”
“Dietland,” a volatile feminist satire on AMC on Mondays, is about a lot of things: sexism, media, body shaming, terrorism, self-hatred, self-discovery, revenge. But it is also, throughout, about perception — about the various ways Plum sees herself and is seen by the outside world.
Sometimes she’s invisible. Other times, she’s visible in a bad way, taunted, objectified or pitied. She visualizes herself, sometimes, as a cartoon blob shuffling around a drab existence; other times, as “Alicia” (her given name), the imagined, thinner version of herself she hopes to become after gastric bypass surgery; other times as a child, remembering the taste of chocolate when it was a pleasure unadulterated by others’ judgment.
Plum works in the perception industry, for a teen-oriented fashion magazine named Daisy Chain, where she ghostwrites an advice column for the imperious editor, Kitty (Julianna Margulies). The mailbag is a catalog of everyday atrocities: cutting, eating disorders, sexual abuse.
The letters — like the revelations of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements — suggest an overload of indignity and fury that’s bound to explode. And it does, but in “Dietland,” male abusers aren’t falling from high-powered jobs. They’re falling from the sky, kidnapped and hurled from airplanes onto city streets by Jennifer, an anti-rape-culture vigilante group (which later adds a female porn star to the death toll).
“Dietland” crashed into our current cultural moment like a body hitting a car hood, and it’s just as subtle. It’s a bit of a tonal obstacle course too, and the early episodes wrestle with a lot of plot.
For starters: Plum joins a radical feminist collective founded by the daughter (Robin Weigert) of the founder of a weight-loss cult she once belonged to. At the same time, she’s reporting to a detective (Adam Rothenberg) investigating the group’s possible connection to the violence — all while working with both Kitty and Julia (Tamara Tunie), who’s plotting to expose the glamour business from within Daisy Chain’s well-stocked beauty closet.
Ms. Nash keeps this story from flying apart under its centrifugal force with a natural and complex performance. In the present, she’s vulnerable and angry, made both jaded and wary by her solitary life. In her narration, she plays a confident, defiant future version of Plum. For all the plot’s wild flights, the core question is how she gets from A to B.
Marti Noxon, who attacked a different set of toxic beauty myths in Lifetime’s “UnREAL,” adapted “Dietland” from the 2015 novel by Sarai Walker, who has said she was inspired in part by the “angry, punk” spirit of Chuck Palahniuk’s very male-centric novel “Fight Club.” (To underline the connection, a character turns up wearing a “Fight Club” T-shirt.)
By the transitive property of TV, “Dietland” has some similarities to “Mr. Robot,” a drama whose borrowings from “Fight Club” include flights of surrealism, an anticonsumerist spirit and a mysterious terror group.
Like the hacker Elliot Alderson of “Mr. Robot,” Plum is a kind of programmer. Her skill just happens to be writing cultural code for Daisy Chain, which built itself on its young audience’s insecurities but now sees the Jennifer movement as a woke-capitalist branding opportunity. “This thing is going to be bigger than climate change,” Kitty says.
There’s a feverish air to “Dietland,” emphasized by its hallucinatory imagery, be it Plum imagining a man-tiger lover while weaning herself from antidepressant medication or the materialization of a laughing, applauding studio audience in a cafe when Plum meets with a radicalized former sitcom star (Alanna Ubach).
But in a way, the show’s fractured narrative reflects the many ways the world sees its protagonist. Just about everyone Plum meets — radical, cop, boss, weight-loss guru, fetishist — wants something from her, wants her to see herself a certain way. Her challenge is to become a subject rather than an object, to discover what she wants for herself.
At times, “Dietland” can feel fragmented, more a collection of provocations than a coherent story. But it’s bracing, maybe more so than a more collected, straightforwardly structured version of itself would be. It’s a fun-house mirror, one that reflects our moment bigger, caricatured and distorted, but that somehow feels true to life.
Another fashion-magazine-based series, “The Bold Type,” in the middle of an appealing second season (Tuesdays on Freeform), also wears its feminism openly. But where “Dietland” rejects the glamour industry altogether, “The Bold Type” is more confident that the master’s publishing toolbar can be used to dismantle the master’s house.
Kat (Aisha Dee) and Sutton (Meghann Fahy) are climbing the ranks at the women’s magazine Scarlet, edited by Jacqueline (Melora Hardin), who’s more a tough-love mentor than Kitty or the vampiric tyrants of “Ugly Betty” and “The Devil Wears Prada.” Their former co-worker Jane (Katie Stevens) has left Scarlet — she recently flamed out in a job at a political website — but they still connect and strategize.
In “The Bold Type,” the characters use the Scarlet fashion closet as a meeting place — it’s a sanctuary for them, not the heart of darkness. (At a party in the season premiere, the three pals commandeer the coat room as a substitute, like Clark Kent appropriating a phone booth.)
Like many glossy Manhattan fantasies before, this is a breezy, banter-y wish-fulfillment story. But the wish here is a little different: that its racially and sexually diverse group of friends can have fabulous careers and still change the system from within. The series sees no contradiction between fighting the patriarchy and having a ton of Instagram followers.
So “The Bold Type” packages its social concerns within career drama and romantic entanglements, as when Kat begins dating Adena (Nikohl Boosheri), a photographer from Iran separated from her home by the travel ban, or when an interoffice romance makes Sutton confront the double standards for men and women in workplace hookups.
I don’t know if Jennifer of “Dietland” would endorse the aspirational vision of “The Bold Type,” what Kat describes as “stealth feminism.” But there is, fortunately, room on TV for both kinds of shows: one that wants to make over the fashion closet for a new generation, one that wants to burn the whole thing down.
Mondays on AMC
The Bold Type
Tuesdays on Freeform