Many may not have heard of comedian Mae Martin prior to her Netflix debut here, but judging by the astonishing quality her series, Feel Good (which she co-created, co-wrote and stars in), she’s every bit the genius auteur that Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Donald Glover, Pamela Adlon or Aziz Ansari are. Like the acclaimed dramedies from those aforementioned creators, Martin’s arrives like a breath of fresh air – framing complicated emotions and issues through the shrewdly funny and bracingly honest lens that only the most sharply observant comedians possess.
Feel Good follows Mae, a struggling stand-up comic from Canada barely eking out a living in London. She’s a recovering drug addict and basically homeless, but things start looking up when she meets a gorgeous English teacher named George (Charlotte Ritchie) during one of her sets. Their chemistry is scorching from the start, and the rom-com portion of their relationship unfolds briskly with a quick montage. They fall in love and move in together within the opening minutes… but what’s next? And this is where the show sets itself apart immediately. Feel Good isn’t so much a rom-com as it is a messy and raw exploration of what happens after.
We start to see the problems swiftly. George is a previously “straight” woman, who has never been in a lesbian relationship before. In fact, she’s so terrified of having her casually homophobic friends and family find out, that she literally makes Mae hide in a closet in one episode. On the flip side, Mae has hidden her substance abuse issues from George – a decades-long struggle that’s destroyed her relationships with her parents and past friends. As George deals with the revelation of Mae’s history, Mae must also contend with the difficult conundrum of dating someone too afraid to come out.
Although these concerns are played for comedy at first, the laughs aren’t able to conceal the underlying toxicity of their relationship for long. Mae doesn’t just feel inadequate, she is rightfully alarmed that this could just be a passing phase for her lover. Meanwhile George comes to the realization that Mae might not be in love with her, so much as she’s addicted to the idea of being in love. As many addicts can attest, sometimes one addiction is replaced by another fixation – so when Mae’s history of chasing straight girls comes to light, the rotten core of their love manifests.
There’s plenty of evidence to show why they’re ill-matched despite their genuine connection. George goes so far as to invent a boyfriend for herself just to avoid telling her friends the truth. Mae displays all the jittery, obsessive signs of an addict missing her high the second George asks for some personal space. Both parties have a ton of baggage that creates stark – and sometimes contradictory – power imbalances in their relationship. And the magic of Feel Good is that it captures the slightly weird, adorably sweet moments of a budding romance with as much depth and beauty as it does the confusing and painful parts.
Like Mae’s stand-up sets on the show, Feel Good sharply mines discomfort for humour, and then uses that humour to confront difficult truths. Unlike most romances on TV, this one isn’t one-sided. Martin and co-creator Joe Hampson’s immaculate writing allows us to empathise with Mae and George’s respective neuroses, flaws and anxieties completely. Each makes a variety of callous mistakes throughout this first season, but their fully fleshed-out humanity makes us understand the root of every barb and betrayal – however major or minor.
Despite her thin acting resume, Martin is shockingly excellent as the anchor of this show. Her quippy humor is both goofy and introspective. Even as she teeters on the brink of breakdown, Martin remains unconventionally charming, throwing in a well-timed joke to relieve the tension when you least expect it. Ritchie is equally capable as George, exuding the innocent decency of a genuinely good person, who just happens to be oblivious to how her heternormative upbringing could subtly demean her girlfriend’s self-esteem. But as great as its stars are, this series is far from a two-hander.
Feel Good’s ensemble of supporting characters is an embarrassment of riches. Lisa Kudrow continues her discerning post-Friends career (watch The Comeback if you haven’t) with yet another role that’s equal parts hilarious and heartrending, playing Mae’s aloof mother with just the right amount of love and disappointment. Phil Burgers is positively loveable as George’s off-putting but well-meaning flatmate (imagine Bevers of Broad City with a much higher EQ). But best of all is Sophie Thompson as Mae’s kooky Narcotics Anonymous sponsor Maggie, whose tenuous relationship with her estranged daughter is so well developed and richly poignant that it threatens to overshadow everything else on the series. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Like Fleabag before it, it’s truly remarkable that a series this brief (six episodes, all 25 minutes or less) can be so fully realized and emotionally detailed – where every inch of it’s achingly authentic narrative feels so resonant and relatable. Feel Good may not always make you feel good, but its extraordinarily humane exploration of sexual identity, queer love, addiction and the nakedness of comedy will make you reconsider what its title means at every turn.