TV review: My Mad Fat Diary - Whoever said that fat was funny?
If you like 'Skins', says E4, you'll like this teen memoir. Hmm. But C4's new drama is a dazzler
Sunday 20 January 2013
The first word of My Mad Fat Diary is an obscenity, uttered by an adult who turns out to be the lead character's new psychiatrist. A decade ago, that might have offered a jolt, but in these post-Skins times, it felt a bit meh. Which goes for the rest of the programme, too.
Set in 1996 in Lincolnshire, this comedy drama is based around the real-life diary of Rae Earl. We join her as she's leaving the psychiatric hospital she's called home for the past four months; she mentions that she doesn't binge any more – and, given that she's 16 stone and has body-image issues, it's a fair shout that's why she was in there.
Soon enough she has bumped into her former best friend, stick-thin with but a wisp of charisma to match, who invites Rae to join her new mates at the pub. The boys are archetypally dishy or disgusting, while the other gal in the group is ditzier than Zooey Deschanel.
One previewer suggested that the sight of a sausage flying through the air and hitting one of the lust objects in the face in a slow-mo food fight was worth the price of admission alone, but really it wasn't half the value of the Grange Hill banger. Meanwhile Rae found herself the butt of various other embarrassments – being turfed on to the street with only a plastic crocodile to cover her bra, getting stuck on a slide at a pool party (who has pool parties?) – that felt not only contrived but also less than mortifying when we've seen worse on The Inbetweeners.
If such comparisons are unfair, blame it on E4, whose continuity announcer declared: "If you like Skins, The Inbetweeners and Misfits, you'll like this." Well, sorry, I do like those three shows, but, even with a great soundtrack (if only the Mack really would return …) and the odd nice line, My Mad Fat Diary is a long way from the equal of that trio in invention, edge or humour.
An hour in the company of these adolescents felt long; an hour-and-a-half in Utopia (Channel 4, Tuesday) was far too short. If you haven't yet seen it, go to 4oD this instant and catch up, because it's nigh-on impossible to review without a few spoilers, and it's best seen with no prior knowledge. Suffice to say for now, it's one of the best TV dramas I have seen.
I'm going to assume at this point that you've watched it. Are you sitting comfortably? Of course not. You're sitting sweat-drenched, terrified that someone is about to enter the room and ask you where Jessica Hyde is. And you won't know. And then you'll be killed. Or tortured. And then killed. If none of that makes sense … go and watch it!
But for those who really don't have the time, here are the basics: a student investigating her father's premature death, a pair of murderers and a blackmailed Department of Health civil servant provide the focus of seemingly disparate strands that entwine in a tense and teasing way.
The student, Becky, is researching a man-made disease that appears to have been presaged in a graphic novel. The two assassins (a nattily dressed Mark Ronson-alike and Kill List's convincingly psychotic Neil Maskell) are slaughtering anyone who can't help them find the proof (and only) copy of the novel's second instalment. And the DoH man is ordering quantities of a Russian flu vaccine that is, we are expected to infer, related to that disease.
Lovely touches abound: when one character is thrown off a balcony, for instance, he lands in car-parking space M17 – next to M15 and M16, the "1"s doubling for "I"s. A maguffin?
Wilson Wilson, a conspiracy theorist and friend of Becky, would no doubt think not. It is the actor Adeel Akhtar's luck to get many of the best lines – "Want to see my nuclear bunker?" – but his is also a stand-out performance, which says a lot given the all-round excellence on show.
There is a fair bit to keep up with, but it's so sharply written and pacily directed, not to mention shot in a way that evokes the dark brutality of many a graphic novel, that you can't tear your eyes away for a moment.
Speaking of eyes … that torture scene. And here, a warning: graphic description to follow. Twitter has been abuzz with suggestion that the sequence in which chilli, sand and salt are ground into Wilson Wilson's eye, is gratuitous. But the direction is such that all the horror is inferred – yes, all right, his eyeball is spooned out, but the screen fades to black, mimicking his loss of vision; and the violence serves to reveal the mentality of the torturers.
Daring, disturbing, visually dazzling: this is a Utopia it would be a shame to miss out on.
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