Back in November, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook demonstrated that on-screen treatment of mental illness combined with comedy need not be tasteless.
E4’s new 6-part teen comedy/drama, My Mad Fat Diary is similar in content, but despite being inspired by real-life diary entries the consideration of mental health issues is far less penetrating.
This time we’re on home turf in ‘90s Lincolnshire, where we meet 16 year old Rae Earl (Sharon Rooney), as she leaves the psychiatric unit where she’s spent the last four months.
The oft-used but still effective flashback is employed to frame the first episode. We’re in the world of uncomfortable close-ups as Rae nervously awaits her out-patient therapist, who duly arrives complete with bird crap on his head and mutters a string of expletives to her unsuspecting ears. E4 have overdone it a bit; this psychiatrist is so bloody alternative that he begins with a rant on his own issues before considering those of his new patient.
But the joke’s on him, as he garners little more than non-committal mumbles from Rae, while the audience is privileged with the full answer of just what she’s been up to in the week since her release.
Cue the angst. Although the episodes aired thus far variously suggest Rae suffers from compulsive behaviours, has considered pressing the ‘self-destruct button’, and practised self harm, there’s no attempt to proffer a diagnosis, and as a result My Mad Fat Diary is more about being a teenager than suffering from mental health issues. Compared to the Diablo Cody-penned United States of Tara, which stars Toni Collette as a woman living with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), E4’s offering requires less intellectual effort, and no knowledge of the current DSM, to follow and enjoy.
And despite the threadbare consideration of actual medical disorders, there is plenty to enjoy. A poignant fantasy set-piece in the second episode sees Rae stand in front of a mirror, unzip, peel off and step out of a fat suit to reveal a slim, lithe teenage body underneath, providing an emotive presentation of her body image insecurities.
The show’s biggest strength is the subtle yet accurate realisation of a teenager’s experience of the ‘90s. The soundtrack features the likes of Manic Street Preachers, Radiohead and Britpop staple Oasis, but it’s not just the music with the ability to bring back memories (and nightmares) of yesteryear. The show has me alternately yearning for the days when a KitKat cost 30p, and rejoicing that outfits like those sported by Rae’s frenemy Chloe are now confined to the archives of Girl Talk magazine.
Characterisation is a bit hit and miss (Chop is a recycled Cooke from Skins), but Claire Rushbrook’s portrayal of Rae’s mum is a triumph. Her first appearance threatens a rather class-prejudiced presentation of a stereotypical council-estate mum, all tight skirts and dropped Hs, but her comic and unexpected delivery of The Talk in episode two proves that both Rushbrook and writer Tom Bidwell are capable of far more nuance.
Although Rooney’s narration and the animated crude drawings cause the occasional cringe, at least the narrative is rarely compromised. Episode two’s revelation that Rae’s crush Archie is gay may not surprise, but it provides the basis for the honest friendship she needs if she’s to make it through the next four episodes.