Mae is an addict. It doesn’t matter that she’s been in recovery for “a long time,” as she vaguely assures her new girlfriend, she will always be an addict. That’s what the eccentric folks at her wildly unhinged Narcotics Anonymous meetings tell her, anyway. Her erratic behavior, which includes burning all her possessions in a trash can and saran-wrapping her phone inside a suitcase so she won’t text her girlfriend too much, makes a pretty strong case for the argument.
Anyone in recovery will tell you that addiction is about so much more than substance abuse. Even once sober, addicts substitute obsession with the high found with another obsession. That’s the savvy central tenet of “Feel Good,” a wildly entertaining breath of fresh air of a series arriving on Netflix just in the nick of time. Hilariously crafted, thrillingly paced, and brimming with the kind of raw honesty rarely found on TV, “Feel Good” will certainly make you feel, if not necessarily good, then something refreshingly real.
Created by Mae Martin and Joe Hampson, “Feel Good” stars Martin as a fictionalized version of herself, a Canadian comedian living in a small city in England. (We never learn precisely where, but it’s definitely not London.) Mae sports a stylish short haircut, tasteful tattoos, and rotates through an enviable wardrobe of Carhartt jackets and shirts. In short, she’s very gay. After her set one night, she meets George (“Call the Midwife” star Charlotte Ritchie taking a charming contemporary turn). George may be “straight,” but it only takes one cute love montage for the two to U-haul like a couple of highly seasoned lesbians.
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It’s only after they’ve moved in together, much to the delight of George’s lovable weirdo flatmate Phil (Phil Burgers), that George finds out Mae is in recovery from a cocaine addiction that spanned nearly a decade, from her teenage years into her twenties.
That little slip-up comes courtesy of Mae’s emotionally aloof Mom, played to perfection by the inimitable Lisa Kudrow. Kudrow appears mostly in video calls throughout the show, though when she does show up in person it’s equal parts hilarious and heartrending, a Kudrow signature. She is aided by Adrian Lukis (“Pride and Prejudice”), who plays Mae’s affable father with a bumbling charm. Kudrow’s post-“Friends” career has been by far the most artistically discerning compared to the rest of the gang’s, as evidenced by HBO’s brilliant cult comedy “The Comeback.” Her presence in this little queer series is yet another bold choice, one that proves her knack for finding and supporting promising young writers.
As George deals with the revelation of Mae’s addiction history, Mae must contend with the classic conundrum of dating someone in the closet. While this particular facet of the story has been so well-traversed to be a bit tiresome, everything else about “Feel Good” is so fresh and unexpected that it hardly matters. Sophie Thompson (1999’s “Emma”) is terrifically unstable as Mae’s kooky sponsor Maggie, and their relationship is both highly amusing and deeply unsettling. As Maggie’s daughter Lava, Ritu Arya is delightfully dry in her seduction of Mae, and Burgers’ performance as a funemployed bearded guy with a higher emotional intelligence than he lets on is a genuine delight.
Anchoring all of this of course, is Martin, whose quippy humor is both refreshingly goofy and, at times, painfully introspective. Despite noble efforts to reveal her uglier side, she remains undeniably charismatic as she teeters on the brink of breakdown, throwing in a well-timed joke to relieve the tension when you least expect it. One of the show’s culminating dramatic scenes is a Tig Notaro-style soul-baring stand-up set, an ambitious grab that could have easily felt forced, or worse — not funny. Instead it feels achingly true and properly cringeworthy, a tidy summation of the series’ themes that comes across as naturally as George and Mae’s chemistry.
In an often bleak landscape for recognizable queer relationships onscreen, “Feel Good” is the reward for years of demanding better queer representation. When Mae loses her orgasm, sheepishly tries on a dress in the mirror, or sprints to George’s work after a booty call text, it’s abundantly clear that a queer person wrote this series. Finally, complex and nuanced stories that go beyond the tired tropes are being produced for TV, allowing queer folks to be seen as fully-formed human beings.
It’s no wonder that “Feel Good” arrives (at least partially) courtesy of Channel 4, which also co-produced Desiree Akhavan’s lovely queer nugget “The Bisexual.” Thanks to Martin, Hampson, Channel 4, and Netflix, we can all “Feel Good.”
“Feel Good” drops all six episodes on Netflix on March 19.