Monday, July 13, 2015

My Mad Fat Diary ended on a marvelous high note

The teen drama is like the television equivalent of R&B.  Wait, hear me out.  These days I don't listen to a ton of R&B, a genre whose best years have long since passed, but I still consider it one of my favorite genres of music.  Because when I hear good R&B, its pleasures are unparalleled.  Likewise, there aren't that many teen dramas that I watch, but the best of what the genre has to offer results in some of my favorite television shows of all time.  A little bit of a "they don't make 'em like they used to" sense can creep in, since we haven't gotten much to match the likes of My So-Called Life and Freaks & Geeks, and modern greats like Friday Night Lights approached the genre from an angle.  But for the last three years, there's been a wonderful little gem waiting right across the pond: UK's My Mad Fat Diary, which closed out its 16-episode run last Monday.

Airing on the E4 network -- home to crossover favorites like Misfits and Skins -- My Mad Fat Diary followed the life of Rae Earl (played by the revelatory Sharon Rooney), a teenage girl living in a small UK town in the mid-90s.  The show picks up after Rae's four month stint at a psychiatric hospital, caused by her mental health and body image issues, as she tries to reconnect with her childhood best friend Chloe (Jodie Comer) and her group of friends.  Right from the start, Diary made its unique charms known.  It gave us a deep dive into Rae's mind, via crude onscreen doodles and voiceover narration that ping-ponged between witty remarks and anxious self-loathing, all set over some great 90s Britpop.  I liked the lively spirit of the first season, along with the way it handled its volatile blend of tones, but I couldn't quite get to the point of loving it, simply because I found Rae to be such a frustrating protagonist.  The nature of the show meant that audiences got front-row seats to Rae's selfishness, self-sabotage, and lack of self-awareness.  Season one was often an emotionally draining experience because of that.

Part of why I loved the second season so much (enough for it to crack my top 20 list last year) was because it made it abundantly clear just how aware of Rae's frustrating aspects the show was.  It did so by upending our whole perception of the series in the stunning "Not I," where Rae is revealed to be an unreliable narrator of sorts, as we see the last two seasons from Chloe's perspective, and realize that Rae's constant focus on her own problems caused her to miss all of the pain that her best friend was going through.  In that way, My Mad Fat Diary is true to how mental illness really is, how it can be so consuming that you shut out all the ways in which the people around you may be trying to help, or even dealing with their own set of problems.

Shows and storylines about mental illness are hard to sustain, because mental illness doesn't really have a clean arc.  It's something that stays with you for your whole life in slightly different forms, through a series of endless setbacks and breakthroughs.  It's for that reason that My Mad Fat Diary ultimately had to end after three seasons (with a reduced episode count of three in this final season), as much as it might have pained its fans.  Any longer and it would have run the risk of becoming repetitive.  But writer George Kay -- who took over for series creator Tom Bidwell -- decided to make the most of it and go out with a bang, making this final season the best yet.  Season three found Rae at a crossroads in almost every aspect of her life: her future with Finn in question, her acceptance into a university in Bristol taking her away from the gang, and Kester deciding that it's time for them to end her therapy.  She reacts negatively to all of these changes swirling around her head, sliding back into her old habits of self-harm and self-sabotage.  These moments in the first two episodes were especially painful to watch because we've seen Rae make so much progress.  If season three's central question was, "Will Rae ever overcome her problems?" then those devastating episodes pointed to a grim answer.

"Voodoo" is as close to perfect as you can get in actually providing a response.  Ultimately, the finale answers that question in the most satisfying way it can, landing in a sweet spot where Rae makes a breakthrough, while also knowing that she'll never be completely out of the woods.  But not before she has to hit rock bottom.  Realizing that all of her friends are worried about her and that her mom chose to forgo moving to Tunisia because of her, Rae takes that to mean that she's a burden to those who love her.  She begins to think that maybe everybody would be better off without her.  I love the way the episode zigzags, making us think that Rae attempts suicide only to be saved at the last minute by Finn, but then reveal that it's all just a fantasy, one that makes Rae finally figure out that she can be her own savior.  It's the growth we've all been waiting to see from her, along with her finally coming to terms with the fact that she's not a burden, that she makes people's lives just as full as they make hers.

And no other relationship is deeper and more full than the one that exists between Rae and Chloe.  Without question, the most moving scene of the finale is the one where Chloe breaks down before prom, expressing to Rae her fear that she can't handle life after college or the idea that everyone will move on from her.  Rae reassures her, "The gang will keep in touch...for a bit.  But, well...that's just life isn't it?  But you and me, right?  We are Chloe and Rae.  We're not the gang."  In just 16 episodes, the show built Chloe and Rae's relationship into one of the strongest friendships ever shown on screen.  Nobody could've guessed at the start, but it turns out the heart and soul of the show was the bond between these two girls who are very different people, but who deeply love and understand one another nonetheless.

Because the final season was so short and Rae-centric, there wasn't much time devoted to the core side characters the show had done so well developing, however.  Would I have liked to have seen more of somebody like Archie?  Sure, but in the end, what we got was something that's hard to complain about.  2015 has been full of finales for many of my favorite shows, but this episode hit me in a way that no other one has yet.  I love Mad Men and Justified and Parenthood, but I felt that I had spent a good enough time with those show's characters by the end.  But the fact that I'm never going to spend time with some of these people again?  That hurts.

We'll always have those good old memories, though.  My Mad Fat Diary will leave a legacy of being one of the very best portrayals of mental illness, self-harm, and friendship.  It more than deserves a place in the pantheon of classic teen shows.  Like many of those it joins -- My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Bunheads -- its star burned short, but so, so bright.

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