When a character returns to the place of their childhood after an extended time away, those stories tend to build to epiphany. Faced with what’s been missing from their life, our hero resolves to change their ways and learn from those they once overlooked. To its benefit, “Frayed,” the latest HBO Max summer import, doesn’t really have that moment. Instead, the series (which aired in Australia and the U.K. late last year), finds both comedy and drama in the more gradual idea that returning from a long time away can raise as many questions as it answers.
For “Frayed,” that starts with Sammy Cooper (Sarah Kendall), a London socialite whose life gets flipped when her wealthy husband is found dead. As details of his compromising situation start to surface and his estate is frozen, Sammy (who’s been going by Simone in an attempt to better ingratiate herself with the British upper crust) takes her teenage son Lenny (Frazer Hadfield) and daughter Tess (Maggie Ireland-Jones) back to Australia and her hometown of Newcastle. There, in a modest house on the coast just a two hour drive from Sydney, Sammy starts the process of navigating her childhood neighborhood and the many ties she cut after leaving the continent before.
Those include her widowed mother Jean (Kerry Armstrong) and her grown brother Jim (Ben Mingay). As both try to remind Sammy of how her leaving Newcastle with barely a word since has hurt them and other people she knew, the three new arrivals try to ingratiate themselves with family and classmates and co-workers alike. In the process, “Frayed” unlocks a key to making a genre-mixing show like this work: acknowledging that, when you go home, everyone’s unhappy in one way or another.
So, as Sammy juggles old flames and past crushes and job hunts and helping her kids adjust to a living situation that might be more than temporary, “Frayed” becomes more than just a fish-out-of-water/homecoming hybrid. Created and written by Kendall, the show has a certain streak that finds people just trying to stay afloat. Sidestepping grand reinventions and profound reconciliations, “Frayed” earns some credit for showing that these things take time, especially in a community with long memories.
In those ways, the show is an interesting companion piece to “Back to Life,” which features a character returning home after a prison sentence rather than an adulthood spent in luxurious privilege. The dark comedy isn’t quite as sharp and the deep emotional beats not quite as potent here, but “Frayed” still draws plenty of strength by not letting Sammy off the hook. Her time in Newcastle doesn’t magically transform her into a paragon of empathy or a perfect parent. And as the series progresses and she begins to reckon with what she left behind, those old wounds don’t vanish either. Her place in the Newcastle ecosystem has changed, but that doesn’t give Sammy an easy out, especially as she continues to stumble into questionable decisions back home.
At its foundation, Kendall can write a bump-set-spike punchline as good as anything else on TV. (A handful of jokes in the premiere about an ‘80s band and Sammy’s reaction to finding her childhood doll in her old house’s basement are prime examples.) This more-than-capable ensemble is right in touch with the comedic wavelengths to pull them off. Sammy’s co-worker Fiona (Diane Morgan) and Lenny’s new friend Bo (Trystan Go) are the perfect kind of additions to embrace the unpredictability and absurdity of the situation, played by people who can ground them in reality at the same time. By the time Sammy reconnects with past high school boyfriend — and present gym teacher — Dan (Matt Passmore), there’s enough room to play both emotional sides.
For a story set in the late 1980s, “Frayed” certainly has the wardrobe and cars of the era. (It also gives rise to one of the show’s best running gags: Jim’s obsession with primetime soaps.) But there’s never an oversaturation of “hey, look what year it is!” nods. Instead, “Frayed” builds this family dynamic on the kind of relationships that translate through any era. Even in sobriety, Jean has plenty of unresolved emotions about losing her husband and effectively losing Sammy. Tess and Lenny aren’t nearly as comfortable in their current school environments as “Simone” was back in London.
The one thing that does occasionally hamper “Frayed” is its runtime. As much as it nimbly navigates a certain tonal gray area, setting the pieces in place for Sammy’s family, both past and present, does lag in spots. When Sammy, Tess, and Lenny are working toward building a new life and moving beyond their personalities established in the opening, there’s room for “Frayed” to surprise. When the show goes through the motions of trying to get Sammy’s old life back, those threads start to repeat a bit after a while.
There’s an element in this season of “Frayed” getting all its pieces in place. The closing moments of the finale feel like both the logical culmination of episodes’ worth of careful buildup and a gateway to an exciting chapter if the story continues. If it follows the steady path it’s already plotted out, “Frayed” has all the makings of something really special.
“Frayed” is now available to stream on HBO Max.