As an outsider looking in, My Mad Fat Diary never appeared to be selling what I wanted to buy. Bowing to the logic that anyone who zanily declares ‘I’m mad, me!’ in real life deserves to be given a wide berth, its big, fat gypsy-wedding-alike title didn’t appeal.
Neither did its teen-skewed content, or as much of it as I’d glimpsed from E4’s promos. Cheesy love triangles and mooning over pop stars? Not for me. And that goes double for shows that get their laughs by insulting characters for not conforming to the rules of conventional telly attractiveness. Move along, please. Not interested.
As My Mad Fat Diary approached its final series though, I witnessed something puzzling. People were preparing themselves for bereavement. Fans gathered on Twitter to express their heartfelt connections to its characters. Its writing and performances were praised in the warmest of terms. Simply put, I’d obviously been missing out.
And how. Having binged my way through its three series in preparation for the recently aired finale, I’ll now happily admit how wrong my first impressions were.
If you’ve yet to give this clever, funny, emotional drama a try, here are some spoiler-free reasons not to wait any longer…
It’s genuinely funny
First up, My Mad Fat Diary is honest-to-God hilarious. About 90% of the laughs in the show stem from its protagonist Rae Earl, played by Scottish actress Sharon Rooney. If you’ve never watched the show, you may remember Rooney from a short but memorable turn in Sherlock (she popped up in series three, as a member of the Sherlock-isn’t-dead support group thingy).
Rooney’s performance in My Mad Fat Diary is nothing short of a revelation. If you like one-liner put-downs, self-deprecating humour and/or ridiculous facial expressions, you’ll love the character of Rae Earl. I’m confident that, if you’re a lover of great comedy, she’ll make you laugh a few times in the pilot episode alone. And it only gets better from there onwards.
Throughout the three series of the show, the scripts consistently sizzle with witty dialogue. This consistency is probably down to the fact that the total sixteen episodes of Mad Fat Diary were written by a small pool of only four writers.
Tom Bidwell, who was involved in the inception of the series two years ago, penned the vast majority of episodes. Saying that, series three was handled well by George Kay. The real life Rae Earl – on whose published diaries the show is based – also helped with six of the scripts, which adds an element of realism to the show. As it goes, Earl wrote my personal favourite episodes – It’s A Wonderful Rae parts one and two. To talk about their content would involve a few too many spoilers, though.
But yes – if you want a new show to laugh your socks off at, you could do much much worse than joining me in the latecomers-to-My Mad Fat Diary club. As well as side-splittingly funny dialogue (see: Rae’s dress that looks like a profiterole crossed with a prolapsed colon, in her own words), there’s also a plethora of sight gags. These are achieved, for the most part, by the on-going use of scribbles across the screen. These doodles are a representation of the illustrations in Rae’s diary, and – more often than not – they raise a chuckle.
Although I love Rae’s sense of humour, though, she isn’t always a loveable character, which is my next point…
From the first couple of episodes of My Mad Fat Diary, you might think you have the show pegged. In the pilot, Rae, after four months in a psychiatric hospital, returns to school to be reunited with her childhood best friend Chloe (Jodie Comer) and soon meets a new gang of mates – guitar-playing history boff Archie (Dan Cohen), party animal lad Chop (Jordan Murphy), the incredibly sweet Izzy (Ciara Baxendale) and teen heart-throb Finn Nelson (Nico Mirallegro).
From here, the jokes and the good times flow fairly quickly, and while enjoying this early run of episodes, it’s easy to assume that you’ve simply stumbled upon a fairly light-hearted show where pure British banter is enough to help Rae regain control of her life. As unexpected as this sentence may seem, Rae’s friends from the psychiatric hospital can often wrangle a hearty laugh out of a sad situation, too.
However, cracks in Rae’s support groups soon begin to show, and you’ll soon find yourself questioning whether Rae should really be friends with these people, and vice-versa. Thinking about it now, every single member of the group has their fallible moments, whether it’s cheating on their partner, betraying a friend to gain cool points, or ignoring other people’s problems because their own seem more important.
Series two is the darkest of the three sets of episodes, and it pretty much pushes this teenage friendship group to its breaking point. At one stage, three of the group aren’t talking to each other and another goes missing because they’ve got in with the wrong crowd. The stakes get pretty high at some points, too, the show isn’t without a sense of danger.
In these moments, the show deals with big issues in life like relationships, friendship and supporting one another through teenage angst. When this happens, My Mad Fat Diary becomes much deeper than you’d expect, and it asks a lot of its characters in order to put things right.
Rae herself isn’t immune to this treatment at all, making her all the more engaging as a protagonist. In series two especially, you’ll be hiding behind a cushion unable to watch as often as you are cheering for joy. Again, realism plays a part here. Maintaining a friendship for years isn’t easy, especially when honesty is a difficult policy to maintain.
Again, I don’t want to go too far into spoiler territory here, but suffice to say My Mad Fat Diary‘s characters are impressively fleshed-out. It’s not a breezy teen comedy, but much more morally ambiguous and intensely dramatic than newcomers might first assume.
Speaking of depth – it’s not just the characters’ moral compasses that have more than expected in My Mad Fat Diary, it’s their emotions too. It’s refreshing to watch a funny show where the characters don’t reset at the end of each episode.
Having binged my way through the episodes in recent weeks, I can’t think of any series – comedy or otherwise – that takes such an emotional journey in such a short run. There are fewer than twenty episodes of My Mad Fat Diary, but by the time you get to the finale, you’ll feel as if you’ve spent Rae’s college years with her, falling when she falls and feeling pride on the occasions when she gets back up.
Although the gang plays a part in the more emotional side of the show (particularly Rae’s at-points-dwindling friendship with Chloe and her mega-crush on Finn), the core to the show’s emotional resonance is Rae’s search for a father figure.
The first real contender comes in the form of Dr. Kester (played by terrific character actor, Ian Hart), Rae’s therapist from the psychiatric hospital. Rae’s sessions with Kester are the emotional core of the series, and these scenes in Kester’s office are often when Rae truly opens up about her issues. Either that, or she takes the piss out of him. The bond between the characters is enhanced by the chemistry between Rooney and Hart, and this relationship really flourishes into one of the best arcs on the show.
There’s also Victor, Rae’s actual dad, played by Keith Allen, who first appears in series two. Victor abandoned Rae and her mum at a young age, but eventually Rae tries to reconnect. In another example of the show’s realism, Victor tries to fix everything with presents, but soon exhibits unreliability and some nasty traits. When he first shows up, you think he’s going to solve everything, but the fact that he doesn’t is a brilliant bit of writing.
The third contender is Karim, Rae’s mum’s boyfriend played by Bamshad Abedi-Amin. In series one, Rae’s mum is helping to hide Karim from the immigration authorities, and Rae is understandably sceptical about his intentions. Over time, though, Karim (who I originally thought was nothing more than a humorous side-strand) really grows into an interesting and engaging character.
Despite Rae’s constant search for a father figure, it’s actually her mum who takes the brunt of her bad days. Claire Rushbrook plays Rae’s mum (real name Linda) as a terrifically fun and three-dimensional character. Linda can beat Rae’s one-liners any day, but she’s also a hugely emotional woman, who sometimes struggles to support Rae. Again, it’s a relationship that feels real, and the chemistry between the actors involved plays a large part in that.
Rae’s family life, and her lack of a father figure, is a subplot in terms of screen time, but it’s rendered marvellously, and fills the show with big emotional beats.
Representation of mental health
In the show, Rae has mental health issues, and struggles with her body image. Her biggest problem, as the show itself suggests, seems to be that she doesn’t like herself. When things go badly for her, she assumes they were meant to. When things go right, she’s sceptical to the point of ruining the good situation.
Rae’s problems are presented both sensitively and insightfully, and the show never shies away from the darkest depths of her depression. This was immensely surprising to me, as I was expecting a comedy with the word ‘mad’ in the title to present mental health in a juvenile way, as if Rae’s time in hospital had just made her a fun, zany protagonist.
We should thank the TV gods that didn’t happen, because instead we have a show that handles these parts of Rae’s life with a determination to be accurate. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the lowest ebbs of Rae’s life are shown in their full-blown form, not only in the filmed narrative, but also in Rae’s on-screen doodle annotations that help to highlight her struggle for those who may not be able to relate to her character.
When Rae feels as if the world is closing in on her, the world then literally closes in on her as her own scribbled lines engulf her and block her from view. In terms of screen-time and time spent mastering it behind-the-scenes, this wall-of-scribbles special effect is a tiny part of the show. But, it’s also vital, as it really helps the viewer understand Rae, and it’s heart-wrenching to see a character you love stuck in these situations, often with no one around to help her.
With the downs come the ups, as well, and My Mat Fat Diary does well to show the integral importance of reaching out to people and searching for help when it seems like the world is against you. For a perceived ‘teen’ show, My Mad Fat Diary is incredibly mature, and handles these issues head-on.
So, to wrap things up – My Mad Fat Diary creates educational, entertaining and emotional TV from its component parts, presenting a lot of laughs alongside a heartfelt narrative and a brutally honest study of mental health. There are endearing performances throughout, and a plenty of juicy character arcs to get your teeth into.
If you hadn’t gathered from the rest of this article, I can’t recommend My Mad Fat Diary highly enough. It’s my favourite show in a long time that’s come from outside the realms of comic books and sci-fi, and well worth checking out, if you haven’t already.
Oh, and the soundtrack’s awesome, too. Final word. Promise.
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