The naughty and transgressive folks at E4 are at it again. First they give us the teen drama Skins, chronicling the daily hot messes of a bunch of good looking, substance abusing, sexually active Bristolian teenagers, then up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, but a gang of anti-social gob-shites on community service that they turned into super heroes for hit snarky teen comedy fantasy show Misfits. Now these mischievous Daily Mail baiters are at it again with My Mad Fat Diary – a coming of age teen comedy drama about a mentally ill Northern fat girl.
Heavily trailed, everything about this new show seemed to my jaded eyes so right on and box tick-y that I was afraid to watch it fearing a deluge of wortiness and After School Special heart-to-hearts but I’m happy to report back to you that my fears were unfounded because not only does My Mad Fat Diary avoid these pitfalls but its pretty darn good television. Amazing in fact.
Based on writer Rae Earl’s teenage diaries, the story follows the (mis)adventures of Rae (Sharon Rooney) who we join as she leaves her Lincolnshire psychiatric ward after a four month stint as a ‘mental’ (her words, not mine). Now back out to face the uncertainties anxieties and challenges of the big wide world – can Rae make new friends and overcome her issues under the watchful eye of her doctor (Ian Hart) and erratic Mum (Claire Rushbrook) and not relapse into panic attacks and bacon buttys? Rae chronicles her journey in the traditional receptacle for the agonies of adolescence – the diary. But unlike the typical voice over soliloquies of classics like My So Called Life or The Wonder Years, the makers of this show have also illustrated Rae’s writing visually with CGI diary squiggles and playfully filmed flashbacks and fantasies.
It’s lovely, painfully honest and most importantly really, really funny. It’s like a more daring Bridget Jones’ Diary mashed up with another E4 culture smasher The Inbetweeners. My Mad Fat Diary takes its cue from that honest and successful portrayal – the teenage girls on that show can go down the pub to drink underage (shocker) flirt with older boys and smut talk like a bunch of sailors on shore leave. To use Rae’s colourful jargon the handsome Dr Nick is an ‘expert moistener of Lady gardens’ and Archie (Dan Cohen), Rae’s main crush, would be subjected to “14, 00 romances on him… him til there was nothing left, just a pair of glasses and a damp patch.” Gross but lolz.
We can’t ignore the ‘mad’ in My Mad Fat Diary. The depiction of the relatively taboo subject of mental illness in popular culture has been embarrassingly two-tone. It’s either a terrifying tragedy or a glamorized quirk. Fortunately through quality characterization this show pulls off the precarious balance of being honest in dealing with a serious condition whilst never letting it bog down the anarchic tone of the show. Earl’s memoir was set in the 80’s but the TV adaptation has sped it up a decade to the more familiar Britpop mid-90’s. A romantic time before Facebook where one’s embarrassing private thoughts would only be shared with a padlockable lined page notebook. A diary was special friend (Anne Frank even named her’s ‘Kitty’) that you could confide every stupid & embarrassing thought, moment and feeling and avoid judgement so long as no one found it, instead of offering them up for public consumption.
My Mad Fat Diary could so easily fall into cliché (and it’s not free of it’s melodramatic moment or three) but the writing packs in serious laughs and heavyweight dramatic punches simply by handling its edgy subject in a unique and uncompromising way. This is matched by engagingly natural and believable performances and inventive visuals. A fantastic triumph that deserves success and if it opens the floodgates to bold and risk taking drama on UK television then this could be E4’s biggest triumph.
The DVD menu continues Rae’s charming dairy aesthetic and includes fun behind the scenes footage and interviews.