A Terrifically Bleak Comedy With Unyielding Empathy.
How suitable for a series heralded by such inherent bleakness to come into the world by way of a cozy storybook rhyme. Here may be “baggles” and “Grubbs”, but Will Sharpe’s Flowers feels about as far-flung from bedtime fancy as can be. Actually, that’s a lie. They feel about half there, with the idyllic shells of folks children might dream about, only to find that these characters have problems far too complex to be able to make sense of all alone.
Indeed, that’s exactly what Flowers seems to exude. It observes the frustration of hopelessness, offering glimpses of quirky cheer and off-the-cuff japes to convince you happiness still – somewhere – exists. But as the six-part tale progresses, I came to understand that it was an assumed cheeriness; an ephemeral comedy, that transcended deeper and deeper into uncertainty by the second. It’s unrestrained, unrelenting and unashamedly odd.
This dark, amusing and mystically sad creature could have only been understood as a comedy, because it’s the only way that ensures the breadth of emotion that confronted me during Flowers’ first episode remained entirely unexpected.
The show overlooks a country townhouse; a dwelling with all the superficial quirk of a lone holiday cottage, without the comfort of escape. Maurice (Julian Barratt – perfectly cast) is a windblown children’s author; creator of Grubbs, a Lewis-Carrolly series beloved by seemingly all but his stony editors. His wife, Deborah (Olivia Colman), is a try-hard trombone teacher determined to find happiness, whose fitful us she’s also neck-deep in turmoil. Shacked up with them are their squabblesome adult twins (artist Amy (Sophia Di Martino) and inventor Donald (Daniel Rigby)) and Lilliputian Nana ambles along the hallway time to time, in quite her own world. Along for the ride is Maurice’s Asian artist, Shun (Sharpe: maker of tea, giver of compliments, pitcher of incurably raunchy book covers. He’s a peppy spring chicken amidst withered battery hens, but his undervalued presence carries essential weight in this perceptually-warped tale.
This is the Flowers family, who boogie to baroque concertos and bite each other’s heads off at restaurants. But they’re also the Grubbs of Maurice’s books, and the friction the dual-identity causes is both striking and entirely intended. For Maurice’s contemplative, tumty-tum rhymes merely voice what Flowers has us sensing from the very beginning – that no matter how idyllic the rolling countryside hills might look, how many cosily-knitted shawls we see or how ferociously their wearers smile, all is not perfect. Perfect doesn’t even carry weight here.
Flowers is Lovecraftian in in that it takes you inside a vague half-world of maddened townsfolk and creatures of nightmare. The creepy plastic surgeon next door eyes up Deborah’s bone structure, whilst the sympathetic farm-hand makes routine visits to the grave of his late wife with cheese on toast and a bottle of Lea n’ Perrins. Or at least it’s true to say that it doesn’t just do those things. There’s a reason for each and every character’s actions; one that instantly binds our own experiences to them, heedless of our fear of them becoming just that bit too recognisable. There’s one scene in particular, that takes place between the submerged couple, in their thoroughly rained-on car. It’s simple, it’s a line you know is coming, but the weight of self-defeat just. Colman states, “If I don’t know what’s going on with you, I can’t help.” And my heart cries, because Maurice doesn’t really know either. We don’t know either.
Di Martino as Amy begins as a mixture of archetypal teen and aloof artist, keeping to her pant-strewn room, suffering for her art, the ush. But her transmogrification from aloof artist to belaboured empath is inspired, reminding of a blossoming Katherine Parkinson in that she’s as deeply human as she is inextricably odd. Olivia Colman, of course, fits right in, always keeping the viewer at a distance, and allowing her zealous pursuit of happy-families to communicate the distressing (and very real) powerlessness depression is notorious for conjuring up.
And it’s power these characters seem so hungry for, too. They’re fighting tooth-and-nail for some sort of control; to mean something to someone, amid unwavering barrages of criticism (perceived and otherwise). Folks endeavouring for warmth – mere moth people who cosy up to the hurtful, the arrogant, the cold for reassurance, only to find their wings irrevocably, repeatedly, singed.
But every time you begin to relate, to feel something amidst the numbing chaos, the shouting, the fights and the voices in your head, the show experiences a complete tonal shift. It’s a programme that – unlike most comedies, dramas or lamentably accruing game shows – doesn’t try to make you feel anything. It merely throws feelings at you at such a rapid rate that you come away feeling battered, frustrated, hurt, and ultimately closer to Maurice Flowers than can you could ever expect. It’s a piece of unrelenting empathy. All the while the jittery editing captures moments of blind fury almost in tandem with oppressive intimacy. The latter is decidedly less comfortable; we’re breathed on by sympathetics or browbeat by critics – yet another disastrous effect left in depression’s blue wake.
Flowers is harsh, crushing and inescapably grim. It hurts to watch, but so does connecting to others amidst crippling darkness, and it’s unique as a comedy in that it offers little more than titters to lighten its deepest tragedies. When you realise its tapering dark humour just underscores its psychological themes, it’s not much of a comedy at all. It is, however, one of the most honest expressive contemporary pieces on depression and frustration on television. Narrative cliche already told me that the Flowers family is more than meets the eye. What I didn’t expect was that I was one of them.