My Mad Fat Diary s2 ep 6

Chloe’s not bothering to turn up for concert rehearsals, and it turns out she’s left home. Don’t worry, her parents tell Rae, she does this sort of thing all the time. Rae’s not that bothered, truth be told, because their friendship has been somewhat frayed recently, but it looks as if Rae will be expected to substitute for Chloe at the concert, and performing in front of an audience is Rae’s idea of torture. So when she stumbles across Chloe’s diary, she can justify a certain amount of nosiness about the contents by wondering whether it might contain a clue as to Chloe’s whereabouts.

To start with, though, Rae goes right back to the beginning of the diary, and we get a rerun of when Rae was introduced to the rest of the gang. Heigh-ho, I thought, it’s a flashback episode, using old clips from previous episodes; a bit lazy, but there you go. It quickly becomes clear, though, that what we’re getting are incidents we’ve seen before, but this time from Chloe’s point of view, which is sometimes radically different. Rae’s first reaction is that Chloe’s recollections are wrong, and deliberately so; but it looks as if we’re dealing with two narrators, either or both of whom might be unreliable. Which once again taps into a universal emotion: we all invent ourselves, certainly to the outside world, perhaps even to ourselves.

Thus key events from the past two seasons – that first meeting, Chloe and the teacher, the battle for Finn, the failed seduction of Archie, the photographs, the party, and so on – are given a new, interesting, almost game-changing spin. And what emerges is a different Chloe: pretty and outwardly confident, yes, but plagued with doubt and self-hatred, feeling herself to be a failure. Her response to all of this isn’t always similar to Rae’s, to be sure: she wants attention, while Rae shrinks from it; but both have an uneasy relationship with food, to say the least, and both are locked into unsatisfactory liaisons with men. Here at least Rae has it a little better: her fling with Liam is unpleasant, but it looks as if Chloe’s might be actively abusive. Jodie Comer, it should be said, is excellent throughout.

All of which Rae has to process while trying to cope with the upcoming concert. Like last week, she can’t find anyone willing to offer her support: her mother isn’t speaking to her after she missed the scan, her father’s away to Portugal, and Kester’s furious at her for fooling around with Liam. (Kester doesn’t like Liam – me neither – but it looks as if there’s something else going on.) The net result is that, consumed by self-loathing and a realisation that she’s let Chloe down, she heads back to Liam’s, where almost masochistically she commences the consummation of their “relationship”, if that’s what it is. It’s a brave and brilliant episode, rounded off with a final line which is like a knife to the heart. I actually winced. Outstanding.

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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 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.

My Mad Fat Diary s1 ep 4

It’s Finn time in My Mad Fat Diary, with Rae having decided that he’s the boy of her dreams this week. (I watched this episode immediately after Glee, incidentally, so if I get my Finns confused that’s the reason.) It’s not going to be straightforward, though, as it isn’t easy for Rae to gauge how Finn feels about her. In fact, when I saw him giving Rae a big hug I immediately thought “friend zone”; as someone who (ahem) might well have spent most of his teens there I am entirely familiar with the signs, thank you very much.

Sure enough, within minutes Rae’s being coached through the intricacies of the friend zone by Danny Two Hats (a smart, sympathetic turn from Darren Evans) and Tix (the ever-excellent Sophie Wright), and being advised to treat Finn with disdain, thus creating fruitful romantic tension.  It’s moot whether accepting relationship advice from a guy called Danny Two Hats, so-called by the other patients in his psychiatric hospital because he actually wears two hats, is a good idea. But Rae decides to do so anyway, leading to understandable confusion on Finn’s part.

One of this week’s themes, in fact, is whether honesty is always best, or whether a bit of deceit is occasionally justified. Rae, after agonising about it for a while, and having confided in Chloe, decides not to tell anyone else in the group about her illness for now; people are entitled, observes Chloe, to have secrets. On the other hand, when Rae finds out that her mother, away from home for a couple of days, has been misleading her about something pretty fundamental, that’s the excuse she needs to yield to Chop’s suggestion that she host a “sexy party”, which looks kind of like a party to me. And on the basis of what we’re shown here the writers manage to capture the exciting yet excruciating atmosphere of the teenage party pretty well, with the added variable of the attendance of Danny Two Hats, like the human equivalent of an unexploded bomb.

By the end of the party Finn and Rae are back on friendly terms – or perhaps just a little more? – although the question of whether Finn and Rae will end up together is complicated by Chloe outing herself as a competitor for Finn’s affections.

It’s not all teenage romance, though: this week there are some fairly heavy hints that Rae’s psychiatric problems and tendencies to self-harm are related to some buried childhood trauma, perhaps related to her absent father. If this turns out to be the case I might feel a little let down, as the show has managed to skirt cliché in almost every other way; it would have been easy to make Rae into the archetypal outsider, and her friends into insensitive louts. It’s still a show which can hit hard when it needs to, but the writers and actors have given My Mad Fat Diary a warmth and sweetness it might otherwise have lacked, and this was another excellent episode.

My Mad Fat Diary s1 ep 3

Once again, the perennial teenage desire to belong and be liked is right at the heart of this show. On the one hand, Rae has been accepted into a predominantly male group of friends, to the point where they present her with a ticket to see Oasis at Knebworth along with the rest of them. That, however, as is revealed in a throwaway but devastating remark, is because they see her as “one of the lads”, something she emphatically does not want to be. On the other hand, though, her best female friend is Chloe, paragon of girly girlishness, who Rae feels herself inferior to in just about every way. This is exacerbated when Chloe begins an illicit relationship with Mr Carrisford, a teacher, and even worse it’s the teacher Rae herself has a crush on: he’s the “gold medal sex athlete at the Rae Olympics”.

Rae and Chloe have been friends for a long time, but given how little they seem to have in common – and the depths of Rae’s envy – it’s pertinent to wonder why they still are, and sure enough there’s a major and painful falling-out. One of the recurring themes of this show, though, has been that insecurity is something which affects just about every teenager, including even the most outwardly confident and successful people, and the episode is flipped on its head when Chloe (inevitably) is made pregnant by Carrisford. It’s now Chloe who is the vulnerable one, and Rae steps up, providing support as Chloe has a termination (also peculiarly echoed by Rae’s first period in 18 months, although this in itself seems to be a sign that she’s getting better). Their reconciliation – and Chloe’s admission that there are times when she’s envious of Rae – are handled with the sweetness and warmth we’ve already come to expect from this show, and the sympathetic acting of Sharon Rooney and Jodie Comer ensures that their scenes together feel natural rather than contrived and sentimental.

As well as improving physical health and a renewed friendship, there are signs for Rae that something might be starting to develop with Finn: the two of them have an edgy relationship, but this week he’s right there with some well-deserved violence for some lads who have been shouting cruel insults at Rae. That doesn’t go much further this week, though, and the end of the episode is downbeat, prompting Rae to wonder, after all, just how much Chloe values their friendship, and leaving her staring at a choice between opportunities for self-harm and therapist Kestler’s home phone number. Perhaps the most melancholy episode of My Mad Fat Diary so far, then, with a real sense that Rae’s recovery remains precarious.