16-year-old Rae (Sharon Rooney) wants to fit in, as we all do at that age; her feelings of isolation, though, are heightened by the fact that she’s just left a psychiatric hospital, her home life is complicated, and she’s a big girl. Hence the title, which as I said in my preview makes the show sound like some reality TV nonsense. In fact, My Mad Fat Diary is much better than that: it’s amusing and charming, and even allowing for the particular circumstances of Rae’s backstory comes close to tapping into feelings which are universal, as Rae tries to become part of the cool gang of Lincolnshire teenagers anchored by her glamorous best-friend-on-the-outside Chloe (Jodie Comer), whose boobs, we are told, are gravity-defying.
Lesser shows would have taken the uncomplicated route and made Chloe and the others into demons, but My Mad Fat Diary is way too smart for that; they’re a relatively warm and inclusive bunch, even if Rae’s path to acceptance might not be the most straightforward. At one point, Chloe is trying to get Rae involved in a pool party: “You don’t want people thinking you’re not normal”, she says to Rae. Of course, in our teens we’re all prey to the delusion that everyone else is secure in their normality; it’s only with the benefit of a few decades that most of us realise that the search for that kind of confidence will go on for the rest of our lives.
This being adolescence, everyone’s thinking about sex, whether openly or furtively, and while Rae is surrounded by men she fancies it’s really only Archie, an engaging blend of good-looks and geek, that she wants. Archie is similarly shy about the pool party, confessing to Rae that he has back acne, which he allows her to inspect: “Even his spots are sexy!”, she thinks, a lovely line which catches precisely the peculiar intensity of teenage infatuation.
As well as being funny, My Mad Fat Diary is occasionally very moving – for example, the scene in which Rae returns to the hospital, claiming to be unable to cope with the outside world, and is persuaded by best-friend-on-the-inside Tix to get back out there. We don’t find out a great deal about why Rae ended up in hospital in the first place – although there are hints that self-harm might have been involved – or see much of her life in the hospital, as it happens, but the character of Tix is so beautifully acted by Sophie Wright that I hope we will see more of her.
And it’s played out to a 90s soundtrack which draws heavily on Britpop, but remembers that there was plenty of other music around as well: ‘Return of the Mack’, for example, played acoustically by Archie, and the awesome ‘Sabotage’ by the Beastie Boys, which is cleverly used to fuel an important plot development.
The key to the whole show, though, is Rooney’s deft and sensitive performance as Rae; she made me care about the character and what happens to her, which is why I’ll be back next week.