A bit sad and a bit silly, but tentatively hopeful for what is to come.
CW: addiction, drugs, mention of gender dysphoria
To say ‘Feel Good’ does what it says on the tin is somewhat misleading. This semi-autobiographical series written by Mae Martin and Joe Hampson focuses on comedian and recovering addict Mae (played by Martin, who describes the character as being based on themselves ten years ago) and the way in which her addictive personality affects her relationships, primarily with new girlfriend George (Charlotte Ritchie). The twist? George has never dated a woman before and struggles to reconcile the liberation she finds in her and Mae’s relationship with her fear of coming out.
After finishing the series, I decided to do a deep dive into Martin’s stand-up to get a better grasp of ‘Feel Good’s’ source material. Naturally, the comedic element is there in full force (Martin’s classic set opener “Did everyone have a good childhood?” features early in episode one), but what strikes me as remarkable is Martin and Hampson’s ability to make each character, not just Mae, funny in their own way. This keeps the jokes fresh and unpredictable: even Al Roberts’ Jared, whose favourite conversation topics are ham sandwiches and Tupperware, is so unbearably boring that he becomes hilarious (and very reminiscent of Fleabag’s brutally-named Bus Rodent). Yet the series also dissects the way in which comedy can hurt people, both on a broader level, as it highlights its dangerous underlying sexism and its prevalence of drug use, and on a more personal one: in episode five Mae takes her frustrations at George out in public in an overly personal new set, not realising that George is in the audience. Themes such as addiction, gender and sexuality were already key to Martin’s earlier work, but the TV format allows ‘Feel Good’ to confront these issues in more depth while maintaining the sense of humour, compassion and honesty from their comedy.
The portrayals of Mae and George are central to the success of ‘Feel Good’ and they land perfectly in the capable hands of Martin and Ritchie. Martin may be playing a version of themselves, but Mae’s emotional journey throughout the series is a rollercoaster to say the least (by the end of episode one we already have her on the edge of tears, face covered in soot, insisting “I am not intense”) - Martin depicts this so well that I was genuinely shocked to hear they have never acted before. Ritchie gets perhaps more of a meaty character in George compared to her roles in ‘Fresh Meat’ and ‘Ghosts’ and what a joy it is to see her run with the opportunity. Her chemistry with Martin is so strong but, simultaneously, their conflicts are so well acted that I felt genuinely unsure about whether Mae and George were a good couple by the end. There are repeated aerial shots of them in George’s bedroom, which gradually start to make the viewer question whether the relationship is able to exist in the real world beyond those four walls. I will also point out here how brilliant it is to see such a wide-ranging exploration of queer female experience: from George’s process of coming out, Mae experiencing gender dysphoria and the prevalence of heteronormative language around sex, to simply the presentation of a queer relationship without the trappings of period costumes or fetishization, these experiences are consistently given weight, humour, space and sensitivity.
To focus on Mae and George, however, is to ignore the truly ensemble nature of this show and the fantastic cast that supports, contextualises and develops the central plot. Lisa Kudrow is brilliant as Mae’s mum: she brings the Kudrow quirkiness we know and love, but adds a new edge of bitterness, a slight straining in her relationship with Mae which creates a complex portrait of a parent struggling to face up to her child's very adult difficulties. As Maggie, Mae’s alternative maternal figure from her AA group, Sophie Thompson is hilariously and heartbreakingly neurotic, seeking any and all distractions in order to keep a handle on her sobriety. Lava, a fantastically dry Ritu Arya, is Maggie’s long-suffering daughter who reluctantly agrees to rebuild their relationship. Together they form a chaotic mother-daughter duo to rival Arya’s role alongside Kate Walsh’s Handler in ‘The Umbrella Academy’. Phil Burgers also deserves a mention as George’s oddball roommate, developing what I initially assumed would be a one-off appearance into a growing friendship with George of which I can’t wait to see more next season.
It is worth taking a moment here to praise the rest of the creative team of ‘Feel Good’ beyond the writers and cast. Each re-watch of the series causes a new detail to jump out. The straightforward but highly impactful device of lights flickering around Mae every time she sees drugs is mirrored during her first kiss with George, highlighting Mae’s addictive personality in other areas of her life beyond substance abuse. Music is also fundamental: the early stages of Mae and George’s relationship flies past in an upbeat montage to the organic, folky track ‘Ragged Wood’ by Fleet Foxes. This is contrasted with George’s awkward karaoke with her friends, demonstrating how much more herself she is able to be around Mae. There’s a real sense of care and attention given to every aspect of production.
‘Feel Good’ is the sort of series that I have recommended to everyone I know: there’s a character, a theme, a joke in there for each of us. Despite Mae’s rose-tinted romantic glasses, the show takes pains to accurately portray the very real struggles each of its characters face and is cautious about wrapping things up too neatly by the end. But hey, if you actually want to feel good, go and watch Martin’s Instagram post of them and Charlotte Ritchie dancing while in isolation to film season 2. It’s a lot like the show itself: a bit sad and a bit silly, but tentatively hopeful for what is to come.