Feel Good review: Mae Martin comedy packs interesting themes, but the romance is lacking
Thought-provoking ideas take priority in this contemporary love story, says David Craig
Those looking for some upbeat content to watch during this frightening pandemic should be aware that, contrary to the title, Feel Good is equal parts comedy and drama. The new series presents a semi-autobiographical look at the life of comedian Mae Martin, whose stand-up routines have provided an accessible examination of topics like addiction and gender identity. Feel Good follows suit and does so through the lens of an intense relationship, but finds more success in throwing up interesting ideas than it does in creating a compelling romance.
Mae is a recovering cocaine addict who first started using while playing comedy clubs as a teenager. Now in her early thirties, she has been off the drug for some time, but those addictive tendencies remain present in other areas of her life. Most notably, her relationship with new girlfriend George (Charlotte Ritchie), whose anxiety about being in her first same-sex romance throws Mae into a downward spiral of self-doubt.
It's a dynamic that allows for some quite fascinating introspection; George battles with the fluidity of the sexuality spectrum, while Mae's struggle with gender identity culminates in a tour de force monologue that doesn't pull any punches. In addition, the show presents a very convincing argument for addiction as a universal experience, which might well make you reflect on your own habits and coping mechanisms.
While these ideas are all interesting, Mae and George's relationship comes across as a vehicle specifically engineered to explore them, rather than a genuine romance. Martin and Ritchie have some fun back and forth, but a number of their interactions don't sound entirely natural. Sometimes it feels like the dialogue is doing a bit too much of the heavy lifting when it comes to establishing their relationship.
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That isn't to say the lead performances are bad. Martin is a hyperactive and engaging on-screen presence, full of witty quips that land far more often than not. Ritchie retains the same sharp comic timing she's shown previously on Fresh Meat and Ghosts, while also excelling in the show's more dramatic moments. But through some awkward scripting they never really gel as a believable on-screen couple, perhaps not helped by how the show brushes over their early days together in a 45-second montage.
Feel Good boasts a strong supporting cast with none other than Friends icon Lisa Kudrow playing the role of Mae's mother, Linda. The relationship between the two of them is complex, strained by Mae's past behaviour as an addict and this is the making of some really powerful scenes. It's not a laugh-a-minute role in the vein of Phoebe Buffay, but Kudrow is still able to steal scenes with the savagery of her line delivery.
Sophie Thompson is also superb as Maggie, a fellow addict Mae encounters in her Narcotics Anonymous group and quickly forms a bond with. She's a frantic personality who believes the key to keeping on the straight and narrow is a ridiculous number of hobbies, from falconry to textiles. While certainly eccentric, Maggie still feels like someone who could really exist and that makes her all the more compelling.
In comparison, the people who surround George feel more like broad caricatures. Ophelia Lovibond gives a solid turn as snobbish best friend Binky, who has an intriguing degree of moral ambiguity which there is scope to delve into further. The same cannot be said for the likes of Hugh (Tom Durant Pritchard) and Jared (Al Roberts) who are essentially cartoons designed to lampoon the middle classes. There's certainly a place for that, but these one-note characters feel a little out of place in a series that otherwise feels largely naturalistic.
While Feel Good's central romance won't go down as one of the most memorable on the television landscape, there is value to be found in the show's core ideals. It poses some thought-provoking questions while remaining accessible enough to binge in an evening or two – and that's the sort of TV that's sorely needed right now.
Feel Good airs on Channel 4 at 10pm on Wednesday 18th March or can be watched as a box set on All 4