'Pure': TV Review

Pure Still 2 -Charly Clive- Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of Sophia Spring/HBO Max
A better portrait of a disorder than its protagonist.

Charly Clive stars as young woman with intrusive sexual thoughts in HBO Max's latest British import.

At the surprise party she planned for her parents’ anniversary, 24-year-old Marnie (Charly Clive) begins a toast that’s quickly derailed by her obsessive and overwhelming thoughts about sex. To her horror, Marnie imagines the festivities turning into an orgy, with naked guests kissing whomever’s next to them, her dad going down on her best friend Helen (Olive Gray), even herself making out with her own mom. Her mental images are disturbing enough for Marnie to catch the first bus out of her small Scottish town and start over in London, where she hopes to chase a vague dream of turning her English degree into a writing career — and to make sense of the flood of sexual scenarios that she’s drowning in every day.

The latest in HBO Max’s burgeoning selection of British imports, the six-part half-hour comedy Pure, a BBC Studios show that aired on the UK’s Channel 4 early last year, is notable for its rare and compassionate depiction of a young woman struggling with the triple challenge of a mental illness (obsessive-compulsive disorder), its social stigma and accepting the probability that she’ll never be completely cured of it.

But the series, despite taking its name from Rose Cartwright’s memoir, is also a disappointingly formulaic stumble through youthful London, stuffed with bad sex, awkward flirtations, professional humiliations and fights with friends that feel more ripped from other TV shows than real life.

If you’ve never experienced intrusive thoughts, Marnie’s challenges may not feel relatable (as they largely weren’t for me). “Have you ever had one of those weird, distressing thoughts where you’re just like, ‘Fuck! Where did that come from?’” she asks in the series’ direct-to-camera opening address. For many of us, the answer is probably something we figured out during adolescence, along the lines of, "Sure, but your brain produces random thoughts a lot of the time, and your thoughts matter a lot less than how you choose to act on them." Marnie explains that her disorder makes it harder to dismiss outlandish thoughts as mere mental detritus, which in turn confuses her about what are her actual feelings and opinions and what are just psychological flotsam taking up space in her brain.

To dramatize this dilemma, series writer Kirstie Swain has Marnie pick up Amber (Niamh Algar), a writer at a publication she admires, in a lesbian bar shortly after moving to London. But when they get back to Amber’s place and the pants come off, Marnie realizes that her intense sexual fantasies about the writer don’t actually reflect an inner desire to sleep with her, leaving Marnie confused about what she really wants, and Amber angry and rejected.

But Pure is a better illustration of OCD and its debilitating effects than it is a portrait of a young woman who has it, even with a fantastically versatile turn by Clive. Marnie’s attempts to discover who she is outside of her illness — her thoughts visualized as second-long close-ups of various body parts — don’t reveal much of a personality beyond “definitely straight” and “the normal amount of oblivious selfishness for a recent college grad.” And other than Charlie (Joe Cole), an unexpectedly soulful porn addict she meets at a support group for sexually compulsive people, none of the demographically diverse 20-somethings that Marnie befriends in the city — queer Amber, Marnie’s handsome but cipher-like Black love interest (Anthony Welsh) and her annoyingly wholesome Desi-Scottish roommate (Kiran Sonia Sawar) — get much dimension, either.

The one episode that doesn't feel like it was based on a script template is the fifth one, when Marnie’s progress thus far at managing her condition is undone by a visit from Helen. Marnie confides in her lifelong friend about her unwanted tendency to sexualize everyone and everything around her, and when some alcohol at a party exposes the sudden but highly believable fissures between the two women, Helen weaponizes Marnie’s anxieties against her in the only plotline that feels truly laden with emotional weight. And then it’s back to the status quo of explaining symptoms and raising barely-there stakes, as Marnie ponders the same question about her new life as we do about this well-meaning but by-the-numbers series: Why isn’t this more fun?

Cast: Charly Clive, Joe Cole, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Niamh Algar, Anthony Welsh

Premieres Thursday, Aug. 27, on HBO Max