'Flack': TV Review

Antiheroines can be every bit as familiar as antiheroes.
2/21/2019

Pop's new drama features Anna Paquin as a publicist who fixes messes in her professional life even though her personal life is a mess.

If it's progress for antiheroines to have become nearly as banal and formulaic as Peak TV made their male counterparts, then count Pop's Flack among the spring's more progressive shows. I might call it a mixture of Scandal and Nurse Jackie. You might have your own completely different set of comparisons. The only thing that's for sure is that although Flack boasts a very good cast and some periodically sparkling dialogue, there isn't a single surprising moment in the first six episodes.

Created by Oliver Lansley, Flack is a rudimentary Vocational Irony Narrative featuring Anna Paquin as Robyn, a Philadelphia-raised London crisis management PR specialist who can fix any mess in her professional life but — and try not to seem to shocked here — has a personal life that's a disaster. You know she's having internal struggles because there's no episode of Flack in which Robyn doesn't pause and stare plaintively at herself in the mirror, usually before snorting a line of coke.

The war within Robyn, instigated on a primal level by memories of her late mother, concerns whether she can find bliss with her too-perfect boyfriend (Arinze Kene), complete with domestic stability and kids, or whether she's destined to just become a train wreck. Offering a role model possibly in both regards is Robyn's sister, Ruth (Genevieve Angelson), a mother of two who seemingly has everything under control, except for when she doesn't. Oh and I'm completely ignoring that Flack rips off the Mad Men pilot for its primary semi-surprise.

To say that Flack can't quite bring itself to clarify what it is that a publicist/PR rep actually does would be putting it lightly. Or maybe my day-to-day dealings with publicists just haven't caused me to realize that what publicists do is orchestrate weekly farces. Every episode of Flack finds Robyn and the bits and pieces of her firm's oddly disparate team eying a catastrophe and blithely declaring, "OK, let's stage a farce sex tape!" or "OK, let's stage a farce wedding!" Lansley's instinct, and therefore Robyn's instinct, to reduce his main character's allegedly high-pressure occupation to these sorts of facile hijinks drains Flack of any unfolding stakes and, what's worse, makes it very hard to respect Robyn and her abilities. Because every bit of fixing descends into silly puppet master machinations, it's also hard to take anything Flack has to say about celebrity or the artificiality of fame seriously. The show is timely only in a superficial way, which probably means it ought to be funnier than it is.

In length as well as execution, these opening Flack episodes are reminiscent of the short first Scandal season in which Olivia Pope — insert "More like Olivia Pop!" joke here — and her team solved a case per week that rarely clarified what any of their jobs were and rarely tied into anything bigger. Flack's episodic plotlines are weak, though there's a bottle episode on a plane featuring Bradley Whitford that's probably a bit better than that, but that doesn't mean the show lacks for foundational elements.

Robyn's co-workers include a barb-spewing boss (Sophie Okonedo's Caroline), a posh-and-profane colleague (Lydia Wilson's Eve) and an obligatory wide-eyed neophyte (Rebecca Benson's Melody). They only occasionally interact as a unit either because Flack was working around the schedules of its busy cast or for budgetary reasons, and while I suspect the former, the show looks cheap enough that it could also be the latter. The whole series has a slightly ugly shot-on-video look — the constant walking-by-the-Thames visualization of London has a thematic explanation, yet still becomes monotonous and limiting — and the production design in Robyn's office and the various posh hangouts all fall short. I guess there's a "These are the people behind the rich and powerful, not the rich and powerful themselves" thing at work, though that's a generous excuse, since without any glitz or glamour, Flack can't explain what these publicists do or why they do it.

The better material in Flack is based on character interactions and the cast. Paquin can't do anything about how predictable Robyn's self-destructive tendencies immediately become, but she delivers Lansley's dialogue well and has good chemistry with both Wilson, enjoyably smiling her way through some peak cattiness, and especially Angelson, saddled with the worst of the show's "Dear Lord are we doing this exact character again?" archetypes. The cliche-laden "sister who chose work" versus "the sister who chose family" dynamic gets a big boost from how completely at ease and believable Paquin and Angelson are as siblings. Okonedo has some quality, expletive-laden ranting — Pop's standards appear to allow basically anything on the "language" front — and could mostly benefit from significantly more screen time. A series in which Paquin, Angelson, Okonedo and Wilson sit at a bar talking trash would be more fun than the series Flack more frequently is.

Really, if Flack could just do away with the men entirely, it would be a much better show and that's a sentiment that carries over to Lansley's tendency to follow up enthusiastic monologues about smashing the patriarchy with the same repetitive insecurities about motherhood and relationships. It's still unsettling to see a show in 2019 that's this female-forward in its cast and presumed narrative and still has men writing and directing (Peter Cattaneo) nearly every episode. Each twist and turn is heavily filtered through traditional television storytelling, not through any lived experience that feels personal or authentic.

Maybe they're saving that for a second season?

Cast: Anna Paquin, Sophie Okonedo, Genevieve Angelson, Lydia Wilson, Rebecca Benson, Arinze Kene, Marc Warren, Rufus Jones

Creator: Oliver Lansley

Director: Peter Cattaneo

Airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Pop, premiering Feb. 21.