'Feel Good': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
A winning duo grounds a difficult love story.
3/19/2020

Canadian comic Mae Martin makes an impressive debut as writer-star in this bittersweet Netflix rom-com about two unlikely lovers and their personal demons.

The idea that love can heal whatever ails you has been one of the most insidious of artistic tropes, so don't go into Mae Martin's new Netflix half-hour Feel Good with expectations of hollow uplift.

Title aside, this romantic dramedy isn't likely to make audiences feel good, other than the non-narcotic adrenaline rush that comes from experiencing a very successful television show. Feel Good isn't a series without joy or pleasures, mind you, but it's mostly a tart, clear-minded, sometimes funny series about exactly how much (or little) damage love can repair and the harder, more personal work necessary to fix what's left.

Feel Good was created by Martin and Joe Hampson and directed by Ally Pankiw, who surely deserves much credit for a challenging tonal balance.

Martin stars, in at least semi-autobiographical mode, as Mae, a Canadian stand-up comic now living and somewhat working — she has a regular gig, which can't possibly be sustaining, at a club called The Gag Bin — in London. With little prelude, Mae plunges into a torrid relationship with George (Charlotte Ritchie) and in less than a montage, they're living together in George's flat with Phil Burgers' Phil.

Not surprisingly, there's drama. George, raised in relative comfort in Oxford, has only previously dated men and she's uncomfortable sharing her new relationship with friends like the marvelously terrible Binky (Ophelia Lovibond). And Mae is a serial monogamist with a long history of drug addition, manic episodes and worse, plus a strained and odd relationship with her parents, Linda (Lisa Kudrow) and Malcolm (Adrian Lukis).

Also, as Mae puts it, "She's like England's Rose, and I'm like a kernel of corn that somebody glued onto some sticks."

It would be a little reductive, but probably not wrong and definitely not an insult, to say that Feel Good has the DNA of a queer version of Catastrophe, from the fish-out-of-water culture clash of the central relationship to the way that addiction provides the tension to an otherwise semi-stable coupling.

Feel Good probably reverses the priorities of those two Catastrophe elements. Like its main characters, it rushes into the Mae/George romance and isn't always interested in trying to convince you that Mae and George are a logical couple. They make each other feel good, which is probably a reasonable start, except when it isn't. They banter winningly, which is another reasonable component, except when it isn't. And Martin and Ritchie have a tremendously appealing chemistry, except for when the show decides they shouldn't.

What Feel Good wants to emphasize is that romance, and sexual fulfillment, is just one piece of overall wellness and using it as a proxy for countless issues that still need to be addressed — addiction, personal trauma, family ties, etc. — is its own kind of danger. On Catastrophe, Rob's alcoholism is a centerpiece of his character and one that informs everything he does, for better or worse, but that series is structured more around the ways very different personalities can make relationships complicated. The show is intended to be about the way relationships can make different personalties complicated.

That is to say I think it's more about the individuals within the relationship than the relationship itself, which makes for a very different tone — especially when it concentrates on Mae's experiences in Narcotics Anonymous (Sophie Thompson plays Maggie, Mae's ill-prepared sponsor) and her bond with her mother, which initially feels fairly close and healthy but is masquerading around very real sources of pain.

This probably explains why you'll laugh at Feel Good and occasionally relish sweetness in character interactions, but the show has a built-in ominousness — Mae's self-destructive tendencies are captured in a high-pitch static whine — that's pervasive.

In this respect, it's astonishing that Martin, who came into the show with a background as a writer (Baroness von Sketch Show, primarily) and not an actress, is as compelling a performer as she is. Martin is funny and precise with her comic stylings, but even though there's some interplay between Mae's relationship and her stand-up, it never feels that one is just an excuse to fuel the other. The more vulnerable Martin the Writer lets Mae be, the better Martin the Actress gets to be. It's almost unfair how great Martin is as Feel Good gets darker.

That Ritchie (Call the Midwife) is clearly the more seasoned and "actorly" piece of the main duo actually fits perfectly with the Mae/George dynamic. The friction between the two of them as characters underlines how Feel Good wants to explore the inherent messiness of gender and sexual identity and its lack of interest in easy answers. It's a crucial similarity with Catastrophe that every time Feel Good moves in a direction that a feature film might eye as a happy ending or resolution, the series just uses it as a way to become more chaotic.

Over six episodes, without always investing in Mae/George as a couple, I fully invested in them as people. The show is even-handed in how it depicts their faults and failings, though I think its early sympathies are more with Mae. Kudrow, both funny and fragile, has a lot to do with that. George's scenes tend to be with the more cartoonish characters — or simply "comedic," instead of "cartoonish" — and I think there's a lot of room for Binky and Phil and George's general sphere to be expanded and deepened in what I hope will be a second season.

Title aside, Feel Good shouldn't be approached as an uplifting or even, necessarily, romantic show in a moment when lots of audiences are looking for comfort food. As occasionally sad and unnerving as this show may be, I find its comfort with difficult material comforting in its own way.

Cast: Mae Martin, Charlotte Ritchie, Lisa Kudrow, Adrian Lukis, Sophie Thompson
Creators: Mae Martin and Joe Hampson
Premieres: Thursday (Netflix)