'Flowers': TV Review

Courtesy of Channel 4/Seeso
'Flowers'
Think 'The Royal Tenenbaums,' only with even more depression.
5/5/2016

Olivia Colman and Julian Barratt star in a twisted British comedy from NBCUniversal's new subscription streaming comedy channel Seeso.

Since Modern Family emerged as both an Emmy juggernaut and audience favorite, the template for TV family comedy has prescribed 20-ish minutes of dysfunction, bickering and farce, followed by two or three minutes of sincerity and hugs, leaving viewers with warm fuzzies and lessons learned.

Premiering domestically Thursday, Will Sharpe's Flowers has no interest in those rules. It's a twisted, miserable, gloomy, eccentric family comedy that looks and feels like nothing on TV at the moment. There still won't be anything on TV like it even after it launches, because Flowers, now airing on Channel 4 in the U.K., is the first original series for NBCUniversal's new subscription streaming comedy channel Seeso.

Before you panic and go, "Oh God, thing that isn't TV to pay TV money for," the first Flowers season is only six episodes, premiering Netflix-style in bulk, and this distinctive comedy won't be for everybody.

Distinctive, but not necessarily unique, Flowers feels like a mixture of Franny and Zooey and Harold and Maude by way of Roald Dahl (or a mixture of The Royal Tenenbaums and Arrested Development by way of Lemony Snicket, if you prefer your references more second-generation).

The Flowers family has presumably seen better days, and their ramshackle estate reflects that state of domestic disrepair. Husband Maurice (Julian Barratt) is the author of a series of warped rhyming books for children, and he's getting odd and probably intimate assistance from his Japanese illustrator Shun (played by creator Sharpe). Wife Deborah (Olivia Colman) teaches music in the house, and while she can't get her husband to take any interest in her, both neighbor George (Angus Wright) and local builder Barry (Colin Hurley) are prepared to fight for her affections. Fully grown and wholly stunted twins Amy (Sophia Di Martino) and Donald (Daniel Rigby) are still living at home, constantly on the verge of homicide as they pursue unrealized dreams of composing and inventing. They also both have crushes on girl-next-door Abigail (Georgina Campbell). Walking around the house in a world of her own is Maurice's mother Hattie (Leila Hoffman), suffering from dementia and one of several characters who might be suicidal, if they only had the necessary commitment. 

Seeso describes Flowers as a comedy-drama, and while the half-hour running time pushes the show in the direction of the comedy, the mixture of whimsical absurdity and pure, grounded sadness is ever-shifting. 

"The truth is sometimes like a toothbrush, and you only share that with people you really trust," Deborah observes, and it isn't a joke about British dental hygiene to observe that there's a lot of toothbrush hiding going on here. Sharpe thrusts us into the unhappiness-in-progress and leaves us to figure out the conditions, be they self-inflicted or clinical or the collected weight of family legacy, holding everybody back.

With Sharpe serving as writer-director, Flowers is a work of single-minded vision, with cluttered dialogue and production design that often leave punchlines hidden either in a hastily delivered series of words or in hoarded stacks of books or piles of dirty laundry. Burying the funny bits is a good way of guaranteeing that viewers pay close attention to a show that Sharpe presents as closer to gothic horror than a comforting sitcom. The Flowers' manor is murky and illuminated mostly with shafts of light breaking through obscured windows or architectural imperfections or ill-chosen lamps placed where they can provide the least effective light. The second episode takes place largely in a hospital that's straight out of a nightmare, all humming florescent bulbs and scuffed linoleum floors and gurney-cams, plus a blood-soaked clown. Of course, it's a funny clown. But it's also a sad, funny clown. 

Colman, whose résumé swings wildly between broad comedy (Peep Show) and heart-wrenching drama (Broadchurch), infuses Deborah's hollow smiles with desperation and need, paired nicely against The Mighty Boosh veteran Barratt's bemused resignation to a life of partial dissatisfaction. With Donald's wacky inventions — including an ill-fated fumigating fondue machine — and his deluded cruelty to Amy, Rigby gets many of the show's least conflicted laughs, while Di Martino makes Amy the show's most dynamic character, with both an angry goth energy and also surprising brightness in her flirtations with Georgina. I'm of two minds with Sharpe's Shun, whose thickly accented malapropisms push him in the direction of ugly stereotypes, even if he is probably the closest thing the show has to an adjusted character. 

In the pilot, Deborah presents Maurice with a book titled How to Be Happy as probably the saddest anniversary present ever, but maybe by the end of the first six episodes of Flowers, embracing and lesson-learning and reconciliation will ensue, just like on an episode of Dr. Ken. Or maybe it's just good that there's room in the TV landscape for both world views (rosy and sardonic), even if you have to figure out what Seeso is to find Sharpe's gloomy-quirky sensibility in the first place. 

Cast: Olivia Colman, Julian Barratt, Sophia Di Martino, Will Sharpe, Daniel Rigby
Creator: Will Sharpe
Premieres: Thursday (Seeso)

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