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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Chitra Ramaswamy

The 50 best TV shows of 2021, No 6: Feel Good

Playing in the grey areas … Mae Martin and Charlotte Ritchie in Feel Good.
Playing in the grey areas … Mae Martin and Charlotte Ritchie in Feel Good. Photograph: Luke Varley/Netflix

If love was the drug fuelling the first series of Mae Martin’s exquisite semi-autobiographical romcom, the substance elbowing it out of the way to take top billing in series two was trauma. It’s a sign of Feel Good’s greatness that it still managed to make you feel warm inside.

In the second series, Mae – the Canadian comedian who co-wrote, starred and played a version of themselves that is basically them – grew up. As in, regressed. She was back home in Toronto, which meant plenty of comedic gold with her parents, played to repressed liberal perfection by Lisa Kudrow and Adrian Lukis, who can passively aggressively recite Gerard Manley Hopkins like no one else on Earth.

Mae went to rehab, where she started hiding under the bed though she didn’t know why. “I forgot that I’m a Vietnam war vet,” she deadpanned to the doctor who gently suggested that she may have post-traumatic stress disorder. She ran away to stay with a friend from her past – an older male – who may be the reason for her trauma. She also realised her memory had wiped out an entire decade of her youth, during which she was a vulnerable teenager becoming addicted to drugs on the comedy circuit. She attempted a platonic relationship with George (Charlotte Ritchie), which didn’t even last an episode. She remained waggish, impulsive, self-obsessed but also frightened, sad, and possibly transgender.

On all life’s matters, Feel Good played in the grey areas. Mae’s gender identity quest was handled with a grace, humour and truth seen nowhere else in mainstream culture, let alone on TV. Like when her vampiric agent, Donna – driven equally by the trendiness of trauma and her own untold history of abuse – said with a thrill, “You’re an addict! You’re anxious! You’re trans!” And Mae hesitantly replied “am I?”.

Or in the final episode, when – while eating wieners late at night in Toronto – George asked Mae: “How do you see you?” Mae replied: “Just me really, I think, but that feels like … not really a thing.” Except that is a thing, George said. It’s non-binary, and maybe Mae should Google it. “You tell me, and I’ll use the right words,” George concluded. They embraced. It might have been the most lovely, heartwarming two minutes of telly of 2021 about an intensely politicised subject. Then Mae’s old drug dealers showed up and chased them down the street for money.

Meanwhile, George was having crises of her own. She wanted to save the bees and she was sleeping with a “bi poly cis man” called Elliot, a study in secretly controlling, self-righteous woke gone bad. The type who enjoys nothing more than responding to his girlfriend’s sexual fantasies about priests and nuns with a chapter from a book on feminist sexuality about the link between the male orgasm and war crimes.

Yet these were not the self-congratulatory laughs of the right. Feel Good was itself a show about what woke really means, ie the pursuit of kindness, and how hard a credo it is to live by. Even when this gloriously funny show poked fun at its own brand of on-message, anxiety-laden wokeness, it did so with love. Its laughs were so sincerely pitched and aimed that they landed less like skewers and more like back rubs administered by Mae’s lovable flatmate, Phil – the sweet cis heterosexual male bearded friend every queer girl wants.

Series two dug deeper than the first. It was funnier, darker, more prescient. The Channel 4 executives who unfathomably chose not to pick it up must be kicking themselves. Like the second series of Fleabag, with which Feel Good shares more in common than you might think, each of its six episodes were mini-masterpieces – as taut, atmospheric and perfectly paced as short stories. At the end of each one, you could not believe that only half an hour had passed.

Episode three was a painfully hilarious deep dive into the horrors of “exploiting and commodifying pain for giggles” as Mae was pressured by Donna to out a possible abuser on live TV. “You’ll be John Wick,” she promised, “in John Wick: Chapter 3.” But even though Mae had always wanted to be John Wick, she couldn’t do it. Compassion and humility won the day, and episode six, the finale, brimmed with love more than tears. There was a hug between Mae and her absurd parents over a box of ornamental pears buried in the forest. There was a reconciliation of sorts with the friend who abused her. And, ultimately, Feel Good ended with two people in love, bored of themselves but not each other, at the start of everything (again), talking about photosynthesis. How romantic.

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