Mae Martin’s Feel Good is a rom-com about addiction and queer identity that’s more interested in staying together than it is in the honeymoon phase.
Feel Good is a romantic comedy about addiction and queer identity that’s more interested in the complications of staying together than it is in the romantic getting-to-know-each-other moments. The brainchild of standup comedian Mae Martin, the show follows in the footsteps of a long line of comedian-turned-TV writers-stars, a trend that has recently opened up space for women’s voices and queer voices (Josh Thomas, Please Like Me; Aidy Bryant, Shrill; Aisling Bea, This Way Up).
We meet Mae (the character shares the creator’s name) during a standup set, spitting off similar (but far less bracingly personal) material to what we’re used to seeing from the real life Martin. She steps off stage, meets a girl named George (Charlotte Richie) who has up until now thought of herself as straight, kisses the girl, has sex with the girl… and a quick cinematic montage later, they’ve moved in together after three months of dating. By skipping past the honeymoon phase, Martin and co-creator Joe Hampson shift the show’s focus to the real, complicated parts of living with another person after the initial whirlwind romance, when you discover each other’s emotional baggage.
For George, that baggage is the fact that she’s too anxious to come out, even after three months of dating Mae. The show is really smart about the ways in which George’s posh, sheltered friends are casually rather than violently homophobic; they often make off-hand jokes about queer culture and other queer people in their lives. You’re suspicious, just as George is, that if George came out to them, they’d be outwardly supportive but slyly judgemental and gossipy behind her back. It’s the kind of insidious homophobia that’s so common nowadays, even in a culture where queer lives are increasingly more represented in the media. George’s anxiety about introducing Mae to her friends, and Mae’s frustration, feels painfully real.
Mae’s baggage is a history of addiction, something the real-life Martin has often discussed in her standup, through the sheltering lens of self-deprecation. However, in a dramatised serial format, there’s no longer room for Martin to use wry comedy to hide from the seriousness of her trauma. When George discovers Mae’s past, Martin acts the scene with heartbreaking vulnerability. As is the instinct of a standup, she laughs off her past with jokes, at first, but the more George pushes to get to the truth, Mae’s brave face breaks down and her instinct is to hide. Martin grabs a pillow and buries her face in it, curling up on a sofa and trying to make herself as small as possible. In the next scene, when Mae finally tells George about her past in her own words, she blurts it out and refuses to look at George when she does so. Here, we see a character who feels so at home performing on stage but is deeply uncomfortable opening up in real life. It’s moving to watch her strip away her defences, and also heartwarming to see her in a relationship with a woman who’s willing to push past those defences. The intimacy they achieve when they’re both honest with each other and stop pretending they’re OK feels so raw and genuine.
One of the most commendable elements of Feel Good is the way it explores how addictive behaviours exist in different forms long after an addict has ceased drug use. It’s to be expected from Martin, whose BBC radio show Mae Martin’s Guide to 21st Century Addiction explored the nature of addiction in the form of drug abuse as well as less overtly insidious forms, like her childhood obsession with Bette Midler. In Feel Good, Mae repeatedly attends an addiction support group, despite initial protestations that she doesn’t need to since it’s been years since she stopped using. But Mae gradually comes to realise that she still participates in addictive behaviours; her obsession with drugs converted to an obsession with her various partners, and her current fixation on George. The serotonin high she gets when spending time with George blocks out everything else in her life, and puts strain on their relationship. Martin viscerally embodies Mae’s manic energy, with her intense stares, her clinginess around George, and her restless, jittery movements when Mae feels lonely or anxious. The show is smart about telling us that in order to conquer addiction, Mae must treat the root of her addictive behaviours rather than simply cutting drugs from her life.
While it might hit too close to home for those quarantined with a partner (you might not want a show telling you it’s healthy to give each other space right now), Feel Good is a heartfelt rom-com for these trying times. It gets dark, but it’s also cosy and romantic, because it depicts two damaged people who are willing to help each other with their damage. It’s also that rare rom-com where you’re actually not at all sure whether the two leads are meant to be. Much like in real life (and very much not like the movies), Mae and George are comfortable with each other, and good for each other in many ways, yet there still remains a lingering doubt about whether they might flourish better as individuals apart. Or maybe not? I’ve no idea where Season Two (if it’s commissioned) will take us, but Martin has reassured us that she and Hampson have plenty up their sleeves.