My Mad Fat Diary s2 ep 4

Rae is spending more and more time with Liam, and is thrilled by their growing friendship: “He just doesn’t care what people think!” she gushes excitedly, which as far as I’m concerned marks him down as a complete weapons-grade twat, but I’m getting old. She’s adamant that it isn’t romantic, even while saying things like “When I’m with him, I feel alive!”. Amy, Liam’s girlfriend, is particularly furious because Rae and Liam have been going somewhere together in secret; Rae won’t tell her where, so Amy – who has a reputation for violence – gives her until Friday, and in the absence of clarification will thereafter beat her up. As it happens, Rae and Liam have been going to group therapy. Liam wants to keep it secret – understandable – and seems willing to allow Rae to be assaulted by his girlfriend in order to keep it secret, which is perhaps more complex.

Archie is also up against a Friday deadline: after being outed to his girlfriend Lois by Rae in the last episode – something for which he initially doesn’t forgive Rae – he’s trying to keep his sexuality secret. Lois, however, makes it clear that if he doesn’t tell everyone, she will. Archie and Rae reconcile, and half-heartedly run away, before deciding that they need to return. There’s also stuff going on with Rae’s mother, but to be honest I haven’t really got on with her arc so far this season, so I’ll just skip over it.

It all leads to an equivocal ending of the sort that My Mad Fat Diary does so well. Archie comes out, and it goes better than he expected without being entirely uncomplicated: he had been worried about Finn’s reaction, but Finn reveals that he’s known for ages, and is supportive; Chop, on the face of it, less so, and Archie is thereafter excluded from the reindeer games by the other lads.

And Rae faces up to Amy, who instead of assaulting Rae runs away in floods of tears, although this might have been because Rae confesses that she and Liam kissed the day before – in passing also burning Chloe, who seconds before had been standing up for Rae as a person of honour, and had received a slap from Amy for doing so. There are things, it seems to me, that Rae can reasonably attribute to her illness; kissing Liam isn’t one of them, and it’s little wonder Chloe is so upset. Liam, meantime, who had promised Rae that he would speak to Amy, and that he would attend at the confrontation between the girl, seems to have done neither. Again, while Liam has become a little more sympathetic in the course of the episode, there are perhaps limits to the allowances which can be made for his problems.

Last week’s episode wasn’t my favourite. This one, on the other hand, was as strong as anything in the season so far, with touching scenes involving Sharon Rooney as Rae, Dan Cohen as Archie, and Nico Mirallegro as Finn; at the same time, the horrors and pitfalls of acceptance and relationships during the teenage years, filtered through Rae’s particular difficulties, continue to be convincingly and movingly articulated.

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My Mad Fat Diary s2 ep 3

Rae’s lonely: she’s split up from Finn, who understandably wants a bit of space, which means she can’t hang out with him and her other friends as much. She’s struggling with her tortured relationship with food, which is recognised more or less immediately by Liam. And Archie’s still pretending to be hetero, and hasn’t been forgiven for his St Peter-esque betrayal of Rae last week. More or less out of nowhere, though, the college’s gang of cool/popular girls want to be Rae’s friends. Led by Stacey, five-feet-something of sweet-faced manipulation and bullying, the gang takes Rae under its wing.

To start with, Rae loves it. She feels accepted, even if occasionally she has to compromise her judgment: pretending to like Backstreet Boys, turning a blind eye to Stacey’s treatment of Chloe –  reducing her to little more than a worker ant – and then, herself, accepting an invitation to identify the biggest loser in college. Which she does, little knowing that the “biggest loser” is standing behind her. But we all want to belong, I suppose, Rae as much as anyone; and she has Archie as an ever-present example of how pretending to be something you’re not can lead to acceptance.

That having been said, much as I love this show I wasn’t quite as engaged with this episode as I normally am: perhaps that’s because the “mean girls” phenomenon isn’t part of my shared experience. The last part, though, was powerful: Rae walking out on the girls and coming to terms with her inability to eat in public; Chloe finally rediscovering her confidence and confronting Stacey; and then Rae meddling in Archie’s private life. That last one is the sort of thing which, with vulnerable teenagers, can have tragic consequences. It seemed a little hypocritical for Rae, all of a sudden, to be taking a fiercely moralistic stance on honesty about oneself, and I have an ominous feeling that it might come back to haunt her. Overall, then, this was a good episode, but My Mad Fat Diary has been better.

My Mad Fat Diary s2 ep 2

When this show started I suggested that its name probably did it no favours, sounding as it did like another in the Channel 4 stable’s long line of exploitative reality shows. By now that’s almost certainly been overcome. But case in point: this week I received an email from Channel 4, promoting Strippers, My Big Boob Hell, and My Mad Fat Diary. I realise that it’s the title of Rae Earl’s book, so it perhaps couldn’t be helped… but still.

Anyway, I’ve spent over a season praising this show for the way in which it manages to combine sweetness, charm, and emotion, This week, though, the charm is dialled right down, the smiles are few and far between; it’s as wrenching an episode as we’ve had so far.

Rae tells her mother how well she’s settling in at college, which is of course a lie; she hasn’t been back since setting off the fire alarm mid-panic attack. Not for the first time this week, though, she has to decide whether to confront her fears or circumvent them. On this occasion she goes back to college, where Archie advises her that the best way to survive is to stay under the radar, something he’s trying to do by smoking and indulging in low-level misogyny with the lads. For Rae, though, it’s a continually painful experience: she can’t allow herself to fit in, because when all’s said and done she simply doesn’t like herself enough to believe, in her heart of hearts, that anyone else could like her as well.

This, of course, is complicated by her relationship with Finn, now marked out at college as serious totty: what on earth could he see in her? Finn’s passionate refusal to let anyone else – including Rae – tell him who he’s allowed to find attractive is one of the most touching, yet bruising, moments in the episode; bruising because we know that, as far as Rae is concerned, it really makes little difference to how she sees the two of them as a couple. (Life in general is complicated by Rae’s idiot mother, this week contemplating plastic surgery, then delivering even more startling news.)

Also having difficulty adapting to college life is Liam, who saw Rae setting the fire alarm off in last week’s episode, and who is also in therapy. During a group session he delivers a vainglorious little speech about how terrible college is, which is really just designed to make it clear that he thinks himself better than everyone there. My Mad Fat Diary has had very few unlikeable characters until now, but for the moment Liam is coming across as a bit of a cock. Still, Rae evidently regards him as sympathetic, a fellow refusenik perhaps, and perhaps there’s more yet to be revealed about him.

Even Chloe is grappling with fitting in at college, a process which seems to have been gravely damaged when a photo of her modelling underwear appears on a noticeboard, later to be followed by hundreds of photocopies of the photo. (There’s some nicely analogue conversation around this – Rae’s keen to get hold of the originals and the negatives so that the photo can’t be circulated any more. Younger viewers, used to indelible digital images which can be reproduced indefinitely, might not fully comprehend; in any event, it has a lighter touch than the conversation about mobile phones between Rae and Finn later on.) At first, it seems humilating, and it’s certainly the opposite of staying under the radar, but as it turns out it earns Chloe a degree of acceptance and popularity. The identity of the person who circulated the photos comes as no great surprise, but the whole business simply reinforces Rae in her belief that there are some people for whom life just works.

And what that means, for Rae, is that she’s going to have to take a heartbreaking decision: she has the boyfriend of her dreams, but she won’t acknowledge him in public; and even in private she sabotages circumstances in which they might become intimate, because she can’t bear the thought of being naked with him. Finn, throughout, is the model of patience and affection, as it happens. But if you can’t be with your boyfriend in public or in private, then there isn’t really much point at all in being his girlfriend, and Rae arrives at that logical conclusion, thus breaking both Finn’s heart and her own; then retreating to the only place where she feels both safe and accepted.

As harrowing an episode of this show as we’ve had so far, then, and much of the praise for its emotional impact goes to Sharon Rooney’s performance as Rae; it’s almost routine to praise her, but I don’t think she’s been better than she was this week.

My Mad Fat Diary s2 ep 1

Rae’s having a great summer: using the framing device of a letter to best friend Tix – she doesn’t need her diary any more, because she’s better – she recounts the story of her developing relationship with Finn. There’s a great café-based Lord of the Flies-type intervention, with a ketchup bottle standing in for a conch, when the gang interrogate Rae to find out the state of her mental health, but thereafter it’s mostly onwards and upwards, with first date (bowling alley), first kiss (football changing room), and so on, including perhaps the sexiest-ever use of the phrase “to be continued”.

College is starting in a few days, and Rae and Izzy (Ciara Baxendale, terrific) have a pact to lose their virginity before then, so arrange a camping trip for that purpose. (There’s a rare misstep when Rae wonders whether to refer to Chop and Izzy as “Chizzy”: I’m pretty sure that portmanteau names for couples weren’t around in the early 90s, but I might be wrong.) It’s typical of the show’s essential good-heartedness, incidentally, that Finn is so nice: it would be more typical to turn him into a creep, but My Mad Fat Diary tends to steer clear of teen-TV cliches like that. Finn, though – given heart and soul by Nico Mirallegro – is someone we can root for; someone who we can feel is worthy of Rae’s affections, even if she doesn’t necessarily believe that herself, as becomes clear through word-association in a startlingly good scene with Kester (Ian Hart, underplaying beautifully).

And this, throughout Rae’s ostensibly wonderful summer, gives the show an undercurrent of melancholy: she doesn’t, in her heart of hearts, think that she’s good enough for Finn, whether that’s due to body-image issues, mental health issues, or general human insecurity. In consequence, there’s a sense that she’s observing her happiness, rather than simply enjoying the moment itself. Which – and this was one of My Mad Fat Diary’s strengths in season 1 – is a universal feeling, not just one for insecure teenagers; how often can any of us simply abandon ourselves to joy?

The storm breaks in the final fifteen minutes: she decides that the camping trip isn’t the time and place to lose her virginity, although Finn makes a rather sweet attempt to make it special; there’s a panic attack at college, as she fears that everyone’s laughing at her for being in a mismatched relationship with Finn (it’s unclear whether this is actually happening, or whether she just thinks it is); and then the real hammerblow comes down: Tix is dead. I was of the view that Sophie Wright, as Tix, was My Mad Fat Diary’s not-so-secret weapon in season 1, so it’s a cause of regret that we won’t be seeing her again. Unless, of course, she pops up from the afterlife to offer wisdom to Rae, which would be a problem for me, as dead-people-returning-to-give-advice and I generally don’t get on.

There’s a sobering coda as well, as Rae enters group therapy with Liam – who’s also at her college – and with Danny Two Hats, who seems diminished, somehow, and claims not to remember the hats, which can’t be good. But the episode is, reassuringly, every bit as life-affirming, charming, amusing, and painful as season 1 was, with Sharon Rooney continuing to work minor miracles as Rae. My Mad Fat Diary remains, on this evidence, a show to be cherished.

Public Service Announcement 12 of 2014: My Mad Fat Diary, Doll & Em

After years of complaining about British drama, round about a year ago I was stopped in my tracks by two new shows from Channel 4’s stable: the dark, complex, and visually stunning Utopia, which will be returning later this year for a second run; and My Mad Fat Diary, back this week.

Saddled with an unpromising title, which made My Mad Fat Diary sound like an exploitative reality show, this 80s-set adaptation of Rae Earl’s semi-autobiographical novel about growing up with mental health issues was perhaps my biggest surprise of the year: charming, moving, sensitive, and amusing, impressive in the way in which it repeatedly sidestepped predictability, and with a predominantly young cast which clearly believed in the material and adorned it with some of the freshest and most appealing acting you’re likely to see. (But not above giving us a happy ending, which is also in its favour.) I loved it, and I’m delighted to see it back, with the gang off to college this time. Season 1 reviews here, if you’re catching up; weekly reviews of season 2 as soon as I can write them (Monday 17 February, 10pm, E4).

The next night sees another in the expanding genre of faux-documentaries in which actors play heightened versions of themselves: Doll & Em, with Emily Mortimer as Em, big-name actor, and her real-life bestie Dolly Wells as Doll, who relocates to America after a relationship breaks down, and becomes Mortimer’s assistant. In keeping with the conventions of the genre it’s created by Mortimer, and part-improvised, part-scripted by the leads (with director Azazel Jacobs also chipping in). Mortimer is a genuine talent, if perhaps difficult to warm to; Wells I have no idea about, which is, I suppose, partly the point.

Sky Living has been good enough to make the first six minutes or so available, which should be enough to give you an idea of whether you’re interested. Personally my tolerance for humblebragging actors showing themselves being egotistical and unappealing, thus implicitly demonstrating how self-deprecating and captivating they actually are, has been pretty much sated already, so Unpopcult isn’t bothering. But we may, of course, have misjudged it, and over at Slouching towards TV our friend Tim will be doing weekly reviews if you fancy giving it a go (Tuesday 18 February, 10pm, Sky Living; on HBO in America in March).

Finally, I think we can all agree that, after season 3 of Sherlock, Elementary now stands unchallenged as the best Holmesian adaptation presently on TV, with Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock also superior to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal. It’s back for the second half of season 2 (Tuesday 18 February, 9pm, Sky Living). And the slightly-past-its-best Modern Family returns for its fifth season, with a double-bill (Monday 17 February, 8pm, Sky 1).

Coming soon: some welcome old friends, and promising newcomers.

My Mad Fat Diary s1 ep 6

In the season 1 finale it’s all going wrong for Rae, but she’s running out of people to confide in: her mother is preparing for marriage to Karim; Chloe and Finn are apparently a couple; Kester’s falling apart. Even Rae’s diary isn’t available; she lost it, and Chloe has apparently read it – the ultimate teenage nightmare, which I avoided by never keeping a diary. And although we’ve seen how far Rae’s come during the season, it isn’t long before she’s contemplating suicide, leaving her mother a note and heading off to a nearby bridge.

As far back as the first episode I was complimenting the show for steering clear of cliché, and more than once during this episode I was worried that it was, finally, going to take the predictable path. Once again, though, it took some fairly common set-ups and made them fresh: I thought that Rae’s blurry flashbacks, for example, were evocations of some unimaginable childhood trauma, but instead we were taken back to an apparently mundane but clearly potent memory of her watching Chloe sitting on her father’s knee, recipient of the paternal love and affection Rae feels she was denied; one of the most emotional moments in this episode was when Kester persuaded Rae to talk about her abandonment by her father in the first person rather than the third.

And the suicide sequence, with potential potholes everywhere, was negotiated with skill, empathy, and not a little wit: I didn’t think for a second that Rae was going to jump off the bridge, but assumed that someone (Finn?) would talk her down by telling her how much everyone needed her, etc. etc. The car? That I wasn’t expecting. Even the ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ homage, as she lay in a coma, was shot through with humour and, with the world’s shortest coma, neatly inverted what might have been anticipated.

The episode, which was very sad in parts, pivoted on Rae’s anguished admission: “I just hate myself so much more than I could ever love anything”. Improbably, though, it’s at her mother’s wedding that she finds a degree of redemption, and at the fish and chip shop she finds more than that. I may have had something in my eye at that point.

Anyway. Looking back on my reviews it’s pretty clear that I fell in love with this show a while ago, and this final episode was something of a lap of honour; like every other episode, it was at times sweet, amusing, and warm, and at other times unbearably moving. Almost as importantly, the series has dealt with some fairly serious issues without ever becoming preachy or didactic; writer Tom Bidwell has served the source material very well. A show about teenagers, but essentially for anyone who’s ever been one, it succeeded in making the experience universal. And the mid-90s soundtrack, of course, was great.

Much of the credit for the success of the show goes, of course, to the cast. Perhaps I haven’t given the adults enough praise: Ian Hart as Kester and Claire Rushbrook as Rae’s mum were both spot-on; Rushbrook, in particular, ultimately sympathetic  in what could have been a thankless role. And the younger cast members were, without exception, quite fantastic: Nico Mirallegro as inarticulate emo heartthrob Finn; Jodie Comer as popular but vulnerable Chloe; Jordan Murphy and Ciara Baxendale as MFEO Chop and Izzy; Dan Cohen as Archie; Darren Evans as Danny Two Hats. Special praise, as before, to Sophie Wright, heartbreaking as Tix.

It was Sharon Rooney’s vehicle, though, and her remarkable and potentially starmaking performance adroitly avoided the potential traps: much more than the bolshie big girl, much more than the tragic victim, Rooney infused the character of Rae with sensitivity, hope, and humanity, and ultimately it’s as much her success as the show’s. I’m delighted that it has been renewed for a second season; everyone concerned has earned it.

My Mad Fat Diary s1 ep 5

“The fight for Finn’s delicious heart has begun”, announces Rae (the increasingly-impressive Sharon Rooney) at the start of the episode; as we learned last week, Chloe likes Finn as well, and that’s not the sort of competition you want. Rae’s up for the battle, though, and not above playing a little dirty: who do you like better, Chloe, Morrissey or the lead singer of The Smiths, eh? It’s a smackdown which rages through Finn’s bedroom and ultimately to a rave at which it looks like Chloe might be the winner.

I’m not so sure, though; I have a feeling that we might get a happy ending of sorts. I’ve praised, more than once, the acting in this show, and this week Finn (Nico Mirallegro) did a really great job: last week I said that I knew the friend zone when I saw it, but Mirallegro’s acting has been sufficiently nuanced to leave open the question of whether he sees Rae just as a pal or as something more.

What’s clear, though, is that Rae has been integrated into the group of friends in a way which I wasn’t expecting in the first episode, when I assumed that the show would be all about Rae as outsider: Finn makes it clear to her that she’s the most important member of the gang, and the most “normal”. This might seem ironic, but one of the questions posed by the show is what “normal” means, and how desirable it is anyway: Rae, in fact, is coming round to the view that it’s mainly repeated visits to Kester and her mother’s promptings which remind her that she’s not “normal”, and that without those distractions she would be much happier.

As I suggested in my review of the first episode, though, it always looked likely that this show’s secret weapon might be Sophie Wright as Tix, Rae’s best friend in the hospital, and this week established that beyond a doubt. Tix, we learn, has an eating disorder as a consequence of whatever abuse she’s suffered in the past, thus driving her to seek control of her life. Both craving and fearing intimacy and “normality”, when Kester suggests that she should try losing control she steels herself to make a romantic approach to Danny Two-Hats, but then backs away; and when the two of them are beside a pond, she entertains, but then shies away from, his apparently modest suggestion that they take their shoes off and wade in.

I’ve said before that one of the strengths of this show is its realization that the challenges of one’s teenage years are both age-specific and universal: steps into the unknown are always daunting no matter how old you are, even if the ordeal is more acute for Tix, perhaps, than for many of us. It’s Sophie Wright’s moving performance, though, which really gives Tix’s storyline its edge: it has a haunting stillness when it needs to, with heartbreak and hope behind her eyes, never more so than when she sits and waits for Rae to turn up for their arranged dinner together, the idea being that Tix might eat some solid food if Rae’s there. As soon as Tix says that the only person she trusts is Rae, you have a sinking feeling: this might not end well.

In general, the show has been sympathetic, if not uncritically so, to Rae. This episode, though, subtly redressed that balance just a little; as well as showing Rae’s selfish behavior towards Tix, it was easy to sympathise with the view of both Rae’s mother and Kester that a rave might not be the best place for her. Rae’s revenge was a petty and spiteful act which reminded us that living with her would no doubt have taken its toll; and there was a coda which hinted that Rae’s mother might be more deserving of sympathy than perhaps the show has suggested until now.

Together with the sobering final scene, there was a melancholy air over much of this week’s show, and it all added up to perhaps the best episode so far. My Mad Fat Diary has outperformed my expectations by a very considerable margin.