Netflix series Feel Good masterfully blends the heaviness of tragedy and lightness of comedy
Feel Good stars Mae Martin, Charlotte Ritchie, Lisa Kudrow, and Adrian Lukis.
Given the times we're in, you can’t help but approach with bilious anticipation, a show titled Feel Good.
The shear load that our mental health is having to trudge, with little possibility of shedding it physically, is likely to make such a title feel oppressively instructive. When I first came across Canadian comedian Mae Martin’s series, I had already mentally told myself the joke ‘What is there to feel good about’. Interestingly, it’s a title that might have aptly fitted what is a refreshing oddball exercise in welding together the heaviness of tragedy and the lightness of comedy. Feel Good isn’t tragicomic per se, for it doesn’t really allocate that kind of wiggle room for its serious subjects to descend into exaggerated farce. Tragedy is still tragedy, only it happens to people who are, at times, hilariously flawed and inept.
Mae (Martin herself) is a struggling comedian who has been living away from home for the last two years. Martin has had a tough childhood and it seeps through her behaviour, her lack of poise, with abandon. ‘Did everyone have a good childhood?’ she asks at the beginning of her act. After one of her miserably lukewarm pieces Martin meets George (Georgina), played with typical British literalness by Charlotte Ritchie. In a later scene George considers making her place ‘a little Canadian’ so Mae won’t be too intimidated to stay. Both women immediately give into the obscurity of lust, the initial tide, and the things it hides. Gradually, as these wave recede to the ocean of reality, as all waves must, the sand of time manifests in a barrage of anxieties and issues. Martin is a recovering drug addict while George is yet to come out to her friends and family.
Feel Good is funny because the sharpness of its writing, deprived as if of any sense of irony or pity, manages to draw your mind in a direction opposite to your heart. You could argue that the show’s tone is similar to the decisively vicious and path-breaking Fleabag, but here there is a consistent sense of tragedy unfolding. The excellent writing extends to oddball characters. Mae’s mom, played by the ever so eccentric Lisa Kudrow, delivers facts with staunch indifference. “You were in an incubator. You were premature. That’s why we are not close,” she tells Mae over a video chat. Mae’s father (Adrian Lukis), comically runs away every time she hints at a difficult conversation related to her alienation or her upbringing. “I’m going to the lawn, to check on the sparrows,” he says, mock-awkwardly. Then there is George’s roommate, a lazy, gown-wearing, bearded bum who justifies his sneaking onto Mae and George with a ponderous “I have depression”.
The show’s writing is so strong it manages to turn therapy for addicts – Mae’s narcotics anonymous group – into a delicious exchange of knotty banter. A woman falsely claims it’s her birthday only to later say “It’s not my birthday. I don’t know why I said that”. Loneliness, the need for validation is so deftly impressed upon the narrative it feels like a little pinch of the air. In the same group, Mae meets Maggie, a dysfunctional junkie mother who tells Mae, while drinking nearly 20 cups of coffee, that the way to get off addiction “is to stay busy”. “What do you have for that, kids and stuff” Mae asks, to which Maggie responds, deadbeat “no, hobbies”. There is a layer of denial, a layer of self-serving emotional withdrawal under every comic privation here.
Feel Good’s punchlines are designed as cover-ups to the turmoil underneath. They gladly overarch the unease, the stunning loneliness of the functional human with functional oblique attitudes. For the first two episodes every moment of potential conflict is disarmingly swept aside by the proposal of lust as a legitimate medium of expression. “Why don’t you just go down me”, George tell Mae after she nervously apologises for not sharing a secret with her. Feel Good is rapturously paced, moving from one key incident to another. Not a single moment is wasted, not a single word launched without a clear target in sight. “Why are you so intense” George asks Mae, rhetorically.
For a show that lasts only six episodes of 25 or so minutes in length, Feel Good, as is typical of any British comedy, cramps in a lot of crisp, well-written dialogue. It often gives the impression that there is no such thing as ‘the same wavelength’. Things that need to be said, have to be said. There are, however, moments where the stillness feels both novel and uncomfortable. The first episode ends with Mae, on George’s bed, staring at the ceiling, wide-eyed, her arms crossed across her chest, as if to control any symptoms from her withdrawal. It is a quietly haunting moment at the end of an episode that has up until then felt dizzyingly, comically, turbulent. Feel Good has this unique ability of sinking into the dreaded depths of abuse, addiction and depression from the near, yet not entirely insulated heights of compensatory, at times delusional behaviours. The jokes keep coming, but so do the gross realities of life.
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