Saturday 11 April 2020

Feel Good / Trigonometry

My experience of watching the original run of The L Word, Ilene Chaiken’s six season monster, mirrors that of many other people: it was novel to watch a show about and for queer women, it was alienating that these women were so very different and for the most part, not easy to identify with, and a few seasons in, the main reason for watching was waiting for the accidents to happen in car or ski races and wondering how stars of high calibre had ended up with these lines. Regardless, I watched the remake last year, which does a much better job at being inclusive of other perspectives that the original show would have never taken into consideration (or perhaps even realised existed), but it is still, kind of, like waiting for a train-wreck to happen. There are two moments in the new show’s first season that I found compelling: one is a conversation between Jacqueline Toboni’s Finley, a main character, and Olivia Thirlby’s (!!) Rebecca, a minor character who starts off as a one-night-stand and is then presented as a possible romantic option for Finley. Realising that Finley has not addressed her past trauma and is making choices in her life that are mainly driven by avoidance and fear, Rebecca, who has her life very much together, explains to her that in order to be in a meaningful relationship, she has to figure shit out first. They aren’t closed yet, or particularly involved, so the process of growing into a full person who can meet her at the same level has to happen without her involvement. It’s a very grown-up conversation in a show that, in spite of the age of many of its characters, isn’t very mature for the most part. It’s a healthy conversation about boundaries in a show that is usually driven by unhealthy relationships with no boundaries, to the detriment of the characters. It surprised me, because the tone was so different from what both the original show and the Generation Q version had been up to this point. 

The second moment happened between three of the show’s main characters, Alice (Leisha Haley), Nat (Stephanie Allynne) and Nat’s ex-wife, Gigi (Sepideh Moafi). It was maybe the opposite moment of the first, since it centres all around unaddressed feelings, poorly drawn boundaries and haunting pasts. Having realised that her girlfriend Nat is still into her ex, Alice sort of makes the choice, or is drawn into, a polyamorous relationship with both of them, but before this becomes an obvious poor choice, and one that is made for all the wrong reasons, the electricity between all three of them explodes into what is one of the sexiest scenes this show has ever done (personal opinion, obviously, perhaps controversial and mainly because Carmen and Shane never did much of anything for me, and I’ve always felt that Sarah Shahi was criminally underused). It’s what The L Word has always excelled in, because it was the first show about us on a channel that could do that kind of thing (this has now changed too, obviously, but maybe Generation Q is still feeding off the first-ness of its parent). 

This is a very long introduction to writing about something entirely different, but the idea here is that these two British shows are those two moments in The L Word Generation Q, but better, done more carefully, done with the consideration and detail and care that they deserve. I would have said, before watching Trigonometry and Feel Good, that these moments on The L Word were outstanding on a show that had a lot of lag in it, but now I feel like they are seeds of something that ultimately goes to waste in the end, whereas it blooms into something meaningful in these two limited-run shows. And Feel Good only has thirty minutes per episode, and Trigonometry only has eight episodes in total to get there, assuming that this is it and there won’t be a second season. 

In Feel Good, Mae Martin (Canadian comedian living in London, playing a version of herself here) hooks up with George (Charlotte Ritchie from Fresh Meat, another surprisingly tender show in the end), a woman who has never had a relationship with another woman before. For a plethora of reasons, mainly Mae’s general precarious life, they end up moving in with each other before they really know each other very well. If they had followed minister Rebecca’s advice from The L Word, they would have had a few conversations before making the jump, but Mae is temporarily homeless and living with a well-meaning friend, and so they do as the joke goes. Now Feel Good goes on to make the opposite argument: that two people who love each other can work hard to create a situation where they can see eye to eye, even if the process of getting there is hard, and wrought. Mae bring a lot of baggage with her, some of which she spends a lot of energy hiding from George – past substance abuse issues now coming to the surface again because she hasn’t found any kind of support network in London (she isn’t going to meetings, her friends at the comedy club do drugs around her and trigger her all the time), and a deep insecurity about how genuine George’s feelings are, because when they met she identified as straight. George feeds into that fear because she doesn’t introduce Mae to her friends, makes up a fake male boyfriend, and keeps her away from any gatherings that might reveal her as her partner. 
It’s a combination of factors that would make any viewer, under normal circumstances, root for them to break up and figure things out on their own before they come together again, and yet somehow, Feel Good manages to show their progress as individuals (hitting rock-bottom more than once – Mae going on a coke binge, George coming out to her friends while high on anaesthetics after a party accident) as progress towards each other. It’s almost like a COVID-19 show before the virus, assuming that in a year or so we’ll be overrun by comedies and dramas about people stuck together involuntarily and having to figure out how to be together meaningfully because they have no other choice. And maybe this show does only work if that’s the frame of mind – that we’re all stuck together in this with no real way out except making it work somehow, and finding meaning in what is already there, because now there are limited options for starting over again (which would both be a whole new genre of romantic storytelling, and a very old fanfiction trope). There is a very strong narrative thread in this show about Mae’s fears that her addictive personality has merely replaced one addictive behaviour for another – that she has thrown herself into this relationship, and into an obsession with George, as a replacement for her addiction to substances. It’s a very powerful argument (and she is correct, in a way), but then Feel Good allows her the grace of figuring out what the core of that love is, and gives her an opening into figuring out what that relationship means without it being a replacement behaviour for addiction. It’s about figuring out a way out of a co-dependent relationship without letting go of a meaningful connection, and therefore (in spite of maybe not being realistic, I don’t know) more hopeful than any other thing that I’ve seen recently about relationships between two people who love each other, short of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. 
And somehow Feel Good manages the same magic that so many other British shows have, combining a profound deep feeling and genuinely with the absurdity of over-the-top (played by famous actors) supporting characters, here especially Lisa Kudrow, who plays Mae’s mum. It’s a gem of a show, and at the same time something that feels entirely new. 

And then there’s Trigonometry. It’s 2020 and I guess we are finding new boundaries now that we can all get married in some parts of the world, and the new boundary is gaining social acceptance for poly-amorous relationships. I think this show works best before its characters begin to try and explain, or gain acceptance for, their official relationship arrangement, before they try to find a new language for their reality in a society that mostly regards them as curious, and only allows them to be defined by sex. I find those excursions interesting on an intellectual level but I think maybe halfway through its run, Trigonometry loses some of its momentum (and maybe that’s just because its first half is so defined, so driven by the unaddressed chemistry between its three leads – it’s like those later seasons of Lois and Clark, when they’re married and the central tenant of the show is missing because of it). Trigonometry is about Gemma (Thalissa Teixeira, brilliant) and Kieran (The Good Fight’s Gary Carr) taking in Ray, a French lodger (Ariane Labed), and discovering that they are both equally attracted to her, in spite of still loving each other. Their romantic and sexual attraction to her is intense, palpable in all of their scenes together, and their relationship with each other is mature and stable enough that they can acknowledge this attraction (there’s a bit of a hiccup with Gary feeling insecure because Gemma used to date women exclusively before she started dating him, but otherwise he’s great). Their relationship is mature enough that they can, together, figure out how it fits into their being with each other, that it doesn’t invalidate their own relationship to include Ray in it. Ray becomes a friend to both of them first, someone they can check in with about things that are harder to discuss among them. It falls apart a bit once the attraction is consummated, in part because societal expectations about what a marriage looks like forces them both to make a decision that hurts Ray. Before the moment where they take off on their socially acceptable binary honeymoon, the show focuses on how all three of them may heal each other’s wounds, or comprehend each other’s scars at least, acknowledge each other’s pain. Maybe it’s all in the outstanding performances, but the picture that emerges in one that is only complete when these three pieces fit together. Ironically, it reveals The L Word Generation Q as a conservative narrative, in which three people in a relationship could never work because the romantic ideal is still a dyad – in spite of the fact that the three characters in the show exist in an environment that is a lot more versed in this new language. 

Trigonometry (2020), created by Duncan Macmillan, Effie Woods, starring Thalissa Teixeira, Gary Carr, Ariane Labed, Anne Consigny, Rebecca Humphries. 

Feel Good (2020), created by Mae Martin, Joe Hampson, starring Mae Martin, Charlotte Ritchie, Phil Burgers, Tom Andrews, Ramon Tikaram, Ritu Arya, Rosalind March, Lisa Kudrow.

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