Last spring, with film screens dimmed and a disproportionate number of folks left with extra time to fill, the TV world was ready to be an escape vehicle. Plenty of people stuck to the recent classics or embarked on catch-up projects, but for people trying to tackle the slew of new releases, there was plenty of room to fully embrace a different kind of darkness than the one happening outside their doors.
While “Flack” may not have gruesome killings or spawn Change.org petitions, the razor-like sensibilities of the celebrity-centered drama might be just the turn-into-the-skid entertainment to light a spark underneath Amazon Prime Video’s 2021 programming slate. Originally a 2019 premiere on erstwhile “Schitt’s Creek” home network Pop, the show centers on Robyn (Anna Paquin), a main employee at a crisis PR firm tasked with cleaning up the messes of star athletes, actresses, and public figures, who all have something to sponge from the headlines.
Robyn would be enough to carry her own series — fortunately “Flack” surrounds her with a co-worker core that locks comfortably into place before the pilot even ends. There’s Eve (Lydia Wilson), Robyn’s adventurous partner-in-crime who’s just as comfortable tossing off a dismissive one-liner as she is delivering paragraphs’ worth of instructions to those she wants to dismiss. The frequent target of the latter is Melody (Rebecca Benson), the firm’s wide-eyed intern who is decidedly behind her office mates in the Cutthroat Instinct department.
And though boss Caroline doesn’t pop up in the season as much as the other three, it’s an absolute joy to see Sophie Okonedo take the Miranda Priestly framework and laser-etch her own signature onto it. The Season 1 finale gives a glimpse of a Caroline, whose no-nonsense approach stretches in more than one emotional direction. With Season 2 (which has already aired in the UK) hopefully arriving at some point before the year is out, the potential for more of that remains something to look forward to.
There’s an inherent draw to a story about a fixer. Fictional messy people can help us feel a little better about ourselves, and it’s almost more potent if they can balance out that self-destructive nature with something at which they truly excel. (Like compete in global chess competitions, perhaps.) “Flack” has both sides of that coin, not just with Robyn, but with Eve, too.
Setting this firmly in the entertainment world also gives it a certain kind of cynicism cushion. As Robyn, Eve, and Melody carry out their appointed tasks, careers certainly hang in the balance, but there’s a marked difference between skirting ethical lines to stir up a desired kind of press for a flailing actress than using those same tactics to rehabilitate, say, a political figure whose policy decisions could adversely affect millions. “Flack’s” cast isn’t exactly a conga line of well-intentioned saints, but it gives the audience at least as much wiggle room to empathize with Robyn and her co-workers as they decide to give themselves.
Another built-in stabilizer of the series is that it’s not entirely on Robyn to be the moral compass of the show. There are plenty of times where things hinge on her willingness to cross a particular line. Mostly, though, it’s a process she’s quick to drink away. “Flack” instead often turns to Melody as the consciousness of the team. Not yet jaded by years of trawling though psychological muck to reinvent images, it’s a fascinating parallel through-line to see what exactly she’s ready to do to stay in her bosses’ good graces. When the show slowly chips away at her spirit, it’s just as potent as seeing Robyn juggle with her colliding past and present.
“Flack” manages to collide Robyn’s near-fatal commitment with competing family-related anxieties, the strongest of which is with her sister, Ruth (Genevieve Angelson). There’s a touching sisterhood core there, but one that doesn’t feel separated from the blanket of cynicism that covers everything else. (Along with Okonedo, if there’s any cast member who the show would benefit by handing more screen time to in Season 2, it’s Angelson.) It isn’t a case of one life in disarray neatly contrasted with a sibling who has everything figured out. They each have lingering feelings of loss and aren’t under any illusions that any one decision is going to undo them.
So on a personal and professional level, Robyn is great at getting out of near-impossible scrapes. But she’s not perfect. Not everything in “Flack” works either. Every once in a while, someone’s attempts at verbal filleting end up dulled. And some episodes feel overstuffed with caustic energy where others have proven that a smaller dose can sometimes go much further. But for a soapy showbiz drama with the occasional feel-bad sheen, this might be the ideal time for “Flack” to get a second chance as a stateside word-of-mouth hit.
“Flack” is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.