‘Rain Dogs’ Is One of the Most Surprising New Shows of the Year
In one of the opening scenes of the new HBO dramedy Rain Dogs, impoverished single mom Costello (Daisy May Cooper) has her daughter Iris (Fleur Tashjian) pretend to be sick so they can skip out on a cab fare they can’t afford. As they run from the irate driver, an apologetic Costello calls out, “I’m not usually a prick, promise!” Then, after a beat, she admits, “Well, sometimes I am!”
The fascinating, poignant, and at times darkly funny Rain Dogs exists primarily within that pause between the two sentences. It illustrates all the ways that Costello is doing the best she possibly can to take care of Iris in the face of overwhelming socioeconomic forces, but it also acknowledges that even her best can sometimes fall disastrously short of good enough.
The series, a co-production between HBO and BBC One, was created by author and playwright Cash Carraway, whose memoir Skint Estate explored many of the struggles Costello deals with. When we meet her and Iris, they are in the process of being evicted from their hovel of an apartment, barely able to escape the bailiffs with little more than Costello’s laptop and Iris’ Sopranos poster. (For a preadolescent girl, she has a lot of opinions on Christopher Moltisanti.) Costello is a recovering alcoholic, and though she did well at university and dreams of being a writer, the only way she can even vaguely make a living is through various forms of sex work. At one point, her would-be memoir is described as, “Basically, Oliver Twist, but with big tits.” Her best friend Gloria (Ronke Adekoluejo) helps as much as possible, even though she herself is only slightly more of a functional adult, and mainly because her dad employs her at the family-run funeral home.
Costello’s safety net, such as it is, comes from the improbable, unreliable, love of her life: Selby (Jack Farthing), a privileged gay man with a laundry list of vices, and a volatile temper that recently landed him in prison. He is not Iris’ father in either a biological or legal sense, but everyone acts like he is, even during the many times that Costello understandably wants nothing to do with his emotionally abusive antics.
Over the course of the eight-episode first season, Carraway manages to depict this unconventional, deeply dysfunctional family with an appealing mix of raw emotional drama and unapologetic gallows humor. Among Costello’s regular gigs, for instance, is cleaning up the apartment of painter Lenny (Adrian Edmondson) while he masturbates. She clearly has deep affection for the old pervert, even as she recognizes how abnormal their relationship is, joking, “You’re like a dad to me, Lenny — one who rapes me.” And when Selby attempts to talk to his wealthy mother (Anna Chancellor, wonderful as always) about how the death of his father still traumatizes him, she quips, “Attempting suicide was his hobby. I mean, how many people get to die doing what they love?”
As Costello’s fortunes wax and mostly wane, we are also given frequent reminders of how much harder it is to escape poverty than to fall into it. Selby is a wastrel with a criminal past, yet his mother keeps providing him with soft places to fall. In the show’s remarkable fourth episode, Selby finds himself banished from London and forced to live in his family’s lavish country estate, inviting Costello and Iris along. Over the course of nearly a year, the atmosphere veers wildly between idyllic and oppressive, but Costello and her daughter don’t have better options, while the world remains Selby’s oyster no matter how often he screws up.
Because the material can be so difficult at times, and because the adult characters are all deeply flawed to varying degrees, a lot rests on the fundamental appeal of the cast. Fortunately, the ensemble is up to the challenge. Daisy May Cooper commands the screen from minute one, while Jack Farthing manages to find just enough of a reserve of charm that you will understand why Costello keeps allowing Selby back into her life. Fleur Tashjian, in her first screen role of any kind, feels utterly natural, wise beyond her years in some ways due to the messy life that surrounds her mother, but also more vulnerable and afraid than she usually lets on. She acts like she loves that their life is such a chaotic rollercoaster, but in one dark moment, she confesses to Costello, “I need you to be normal, you know? Not try to be something all the time.”
“Normal” is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, and in another scene, Selby insists that, “It’s completely normal to hate the people you love.” This impressive, often bitterly funny debut season acknowledges all the ways that life and society shaped Costello into this charismatic hot mess, and argues that she is doing a far sight better by her daughter than her own middle-class parents did for her when she was a child. But it also holds her accountable for the many ways she is failing both her child and herself. It is not normal, but it will linger with you far longer than shows that are.
Rain Dogs premieres March 6 on HBO and HBO Max, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the whole first season.