This review contains spoilers.
Surreal, insightful, funny and moving, Channel 4’s six-part black comedy Flowers which aired in April 2016 was an absolute gem. A clever and sensitive in-depth exploration into depression, and living with someone with depression, Flowers was groundbreaking, glorious, original and an absolute joy to watch.
Now series two is with us, released in the same format as last time, with the first two episodes arriving at once, followed by a new episode every day for the rest of the week.
Two eps in and it’s already possibly the most compelling thing on TV – streaming culture means it’s almost unbearable not to be able to devour the whole thing in one go. But then at times Flowers gets very intense, so perhaps this slow burn format is a gentler way to digest a show which takes us deep into the dark realms of the human psyche.
Picking up some time after series one left off and Maurice Flowers (Julian Barratt) is now being treated for depression. Calm but suffering from writer’s block he’s somewhat evangelical about his new-found peace (suggesting Shun seek therapy for a cold, for example) and on a caravanning holiday with long suffering wife Deborah (Olivia Coleman) he’s free to run around catching butterflies in his pants. His happiness is short lived however, when Deborah drops a bombshell: she can’t be with him any more.
Bringing back the magical realism and folk horror elements explored in series one, episode one introduces a new central mystery. Daughter Amy (Sophia Di Martino) meets with an old friend of Maurice’s mysterious magician father Felix. She gives Amy an old box of Felix’s things including a beautifully illustrated book about the Baumgardner family, a cursed clan from 18th Century Germany.
The daughter of the Baumgartner family, Amy explains in a beautiful bit of florid storytelling, has one yellow eye which can see only joy, and one blue eye which sees only darkness. She covers the evil eye with an eye patch but when she does so her good eye begins to lose its power. Scenes of lurid frenzied family debauchery featuring the Flowers in 18th Century garb playing the accursed Baumgarnters (“sounds like Bum Gardner” says one of the builders “I know but it works” Amy replies) are paralleled with scenes of the avant garde band that Amy now fronts in a bit of foreshadowing which hints at an ongoing plotline to come surrounding bipolar disorder.
Episode two cuts ahead and sees the family further divided, with Deborah living away from the rest of the Flowers and casually dating the publicist of her new book, a non-fiction memoir about living with her husband’s depression. Donald (Daniel Rigby) has started his own business (a plumbing firm called Mr Pipes) but is still furious at being overshadowed by his sister. Amy now has a girlfriend, Hylda (Harriet Walter), and her band are living in the Flowers’ residence.
Ep two is Shun’s arc as much as anyone’s though, as the formerly sunshiny Japanese illustrator played by Will Sharpe, who also wrote and created the show, nosedives into alcoholism and unhappiness climaxing in a racist breakdown at a meeting with Maurice’s publishers. It’s uncomfortable, heartbreaking and yes, still kind of funny.
It’s an absolute tribute to Sharpe’s astute writing that a show that deals in this much darkness – because Flowers is in many ways a spiritual sibling to the year’s most harrowing movie, Hereditary – manages to also be laugh-out-loud funny throughout.
Donald gets a lot of the best jokes including the exchange which includes the ‘call me a misnogynist’ gag from the trailer, though the list of things Shun says his new girlfriend wants to put up his bottom is also surreal and hilarious. Meanwhile the dinner table scene where the kids visit Deborah for the first time, with uninvited Hylda and Barry (Colin Hurley) in tow is as tense and excruciating as the best family drama. The cast are of course, exceptional, intensely sympathetic and intensely annoying in equal measure, but always, always intense.
With themes of medication and therapy and their drawbacks as well as advantages at the fore, the first two episodes of series two prove again that Flowers is way more than awkward family dinners and bum gags. A Beckettian look at mental illness through a kaleidoscopic magic realist lens doused in folklore and gothic imagery, this is tragicomedy at its absolute best.
Flowers series two continues all this week at 10pm on Channel 4.