An underappreciated girl meets girl romance calls to mind the classics of British comedy
In another time and place, I might have described the Netflix original series Feel Good as a “girl meets girl” romance. But its creator and star, Mae Martin, no longer identifies as female. (In the show, Mae alternately identifies variously as Ryan Gosling, John Wick and an ear of corn.) Also, though they made the show in the UK , its main character is Canadian–an ear of corn–immersed in a committed romance (sort of).
See, it’s complicated. So rather than untangle all the identitarian and cultural nuances that underpin the back story, I’ll just describe the ways in which Feel Good resembles another beloved comedy show of mine–Fawlty Towers.
How, you ask, could a Netflex show helmed by a Millennial (from Canada, of all places!) possibly resemble a celebrated BBC classic from one of the finest comedians Britain has ever produced? Answer: in more ways than one.
Tiny Shows, Limited Run
Feel Good and Fawlty Towers both make skilled use of the half-hour program format. Both shows pack 30 minutes with enough character, chuckles and compelling story to keep the viewer hooked. Feel Good’s two main sets (and answer the Towers’ lobby and dining room) are Mae’s comedy club and the flat she shares with girlfriend George and their roommate Phil. The dramas of three main characters are more than enough to fill both locales, and these feel well-explored after just twelve episodes, which complete its run. Like Fawlty Towers, Feel Good is winding up after only two seasons.
Just as Fawlty Towers boasts a stable cast of regulars that inhabit (and make hospitable) the world of a Torquay bed and breakfast, Feel Good is an ensemble comedy that fills out the personal and professional lives of a schoolteacher and her lover, a professional comic. Because the ups and downs of Mae’s and George’s relationship trigger much of the drama, part of the buzz comes from watching others react to it, just as outsiders witnessed the occasionally violent outbursts of the Fawlty marriage.
Phil, the roommate, is a sort of beta-male shaman savant with a heart of gold. Maggie (Sophie Thompson) finds herself plunged unwillingly into the relationship when she becomes Mae’s NA sponsor in season one. Lisa Kudrow, playing Mae’s mom, does a great turn as the prototypical martyr Boomer-parent. And Nick, comedy club MC (played with understated aplomb by Tobi Bamtefa) offers a great turn as the patient and long-suffering witness to Mae’s many triumphs and dysfunctions.
Don’t Mention It…
The humor of “The Germans,” one of Fawlty Towers’ most famous episodes, centers on a frantic effort by the English hotel staff to avoid bringing up World War II with a cadre of visiting German holidaymakers (“Don’t mention the war!”). The unmentionable plays a key role in Feel Good, too. George, nominally straight, struggles with confessing the truth about her relationship with Mae to friends. Mae has difficulty owning up to her addictions with George. And the unmentionable nightmare of sexual trauma hovers over season two like a vulture in clown make-up. Like the Fawlty Towers episode “The Germans,” season two of Feel Good elaborates a shaggy-dog joke about how long buried trauma can remain submerged. As morbid as John Cleese goose-stepping and Heil Hitler-ing, it is also every bit as cathartically funny and nauseatingly redemptive.
Speaking of silly walks, physical comedy has truly suffered in our age of cerebral humor. Cleese brought a great deal of it back with Monty Python and Fawlty Towers. Like them, Feel Good has some surprising high points featuring physical comedy, which play out differently across the two seasons. Mae’s riffs on the peculiarities of girl sex are hilarious, as is a scene in which George (Charlotte Ritchie) literally stuffs her lesbian lover into a closet to avoid discovery by colleagues at work. Episodes also feature chase scenes, attempts to hide in strange places and stage business involving all manner of props from deviled eggs to dildos. Used more as a subtle flourish than a vaudeville feature, Feel Good’s bouts of physical comedy are reminiscent of Fawlty Towers’ finest moments.
Feel Good premiered in 2020, not long before COVID arrived with its Year Zero energy to grey-scale the world and wipe out every lingering vestige of enjoyment not already sucked dry by the Trump Years. A good many inaugural books, TV series, movies and garage bands shipwrecked on the COVID iceberg. One could argue Feel Good might have enjoyed higher ratings had things been different.
But that’s part of what makes Feel Good perfect for our time. Here is a small show, with modest aspirations, defined by the relationship between two women. Feel Good takes us inside a private, intimate world that is confusing, tender and unabashedly goofy without ever once turning mean. It faithfully portrays the human comedy in miniature, delivering twelve lovingly-crafted little episodes that reveal a slice of life. Just as the long-suffering guests of Fawlty Towers Bed and Breakfast chafe against their confines, so do George and Mae collide with the frontiers of relationship, as have we all this past year.
Feel Good is a gem. Released at an inconvenient moment in entertainment history, it deserves to be watched and remembered for what it is–something that was warm, wise and funny to savor when the world turned suddenly and inexplicably cold. It should receive more attention than it has. Watch, enjoy and please tell all your friends.