Canadian comedian Mae Martin has long explored her experiences with gender, sexuality and addiction through mediums ranging from her stand-up to her written works.
In Feel Good, her new, semi-autobiographical comedy-drama — co-created and co-written with Joe Hampson — Martin attempts to take it a step further by playing a fictionalised version of herself.
The show’s Mae, herself a comedian living in England, embarks on a new relationship with George (Charlotte Ritchie). Skipping over the couple’s honeymoon period via montage, the show aims to explore the more complicated inner and interpersonal emotions that come with romantic relationships. Despite these ambitions, the series never packs as much punch as it could.
Each of the show’s 30-minute episodes are dense with ideas, from codependency to mother/daughter tensions, however, the audience is bombarded with rapid pacing that rushes through these themes.
This is partly due to the style of comedy, but Feel Good’s formal qualities don’t help. Directed by Ally Pankiw, the camera is constantly shaky, the editing is too fast, and the soundtrack is trite. The manic energy is meant to reflect Mae’s own restless energy, but the show lacks the patience to truly slow down during its dramatic moments and let them sit. It retains a constantly hurried pace, to the series’ detriment.
Mae’s struggle with drug addiction is a crucial facet of the show, mined as much for comedic effect as it is dramatic. Though she considers it a problem of the past, it’s soon clear that it’s still impacting Mae’s present.
As she attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings in attempts to address her addiction and atone for the harmful decisions she’s made, the series highlights the varying ways addiction manifests — not only in regards to substance use, but through relationships and love.
Mae initially deflects difficult moments with attempted humour. Deflection is a behaviour she shares with her estranged mother (played by Lisa Kudrow, to-ing and fro-ing between caricature and psychologically complex) and father (Adrian Lukis). But even when she does confront hard emotions, Martin plays the character with the same forced energy, preventing her from always feeling genuine.
Meanwhile, Ritchie’s George brings charisma and comparatively subdued comic timing. While George has previously only dated men, she’s instantly comfortable with Mae and her own broadening sexuality. However, when external pressures question the authenticity of George’s queerness, the show tightens, injecting their relationship with jealousy, insecurity and anxiety.
Gender and sexuality in Feel Good is interestingly unfixed. Neither George nor Mae label their own sexualities, having dated across genders. And while Mae is referred to by female pronouns, there’s an evident androgyny and fluidity to her; her late admittance that she feels like “a failed version” of both man and woman is one of several touching ways that the show gestures to gender dysphoria.
The show knows George’s true feelings for Mae, so injecting conflict into a couple that we care for, even with all their ups and downs, is genuinely painful.
Feel Good is ultimately more successful at being tense and emotionally complicated than funny. Some of the humour works, but often it’s awkward and superficially weird for the sake of it.
Though the show’s emotional impact could be deeper, its tensions (comedic or otherwise) can still resonate: see the aching season finale, which leaves the characters’ directions uncertain. Mae and George’s tumultuous relationship has its share of unhealthiness, but it also has enough love for us to root for their success.
Feel Good comes to Netflix on Friday March 20.