In the new Netflix romantic dramedy Feel Good, Mae falls in love with George. Mae (Mae Martin) is a Canadian living abroad, a comedian and a recovering addict who is effectively homeless. George (Charlotte Ritchie) is an English teacher, and has not only never dated another woman before, but is so terrified of having friends or family ask her questions about it that she literally makes Mae hide in a closet in one episode.
That’s a lot of darkness to throw at any new relationship, and that’s before we even get into Mae’s messy history with her mother Linda (Lisa Kudrow, who mostly appears via Skype), who bore the brunt of Mae’s drug-seeking behavior back in the day. Like a lot of recent British half-hours (including Catastrophe — its clearest analogue — Fleabag and This Way Up), Feel Good (created by Martin and Joe Hampson) tries to confront these complications with equal parts humor and pathos. But the series is much more effective at taking Mae and George’s star-crossed affair seriously than it is at mining their problems for laughs.
The two meet during one of Mae’s stand-up gigs — literally, they make a connection while Mae is heckling one of George’s friends for playing Candy Crush midshow — and it’s awe at first sight, for both of them. Mae is intimidated by everything about George, whom she describes as “like a dangerous Mary Poppins, and I’m, like, Bart Simpson,” while George looks mortified when she admits she’s “never been on a date with a girl before.” The chemistry between Martin and Ritchie is scorching from the start. But even in the blush of early love, there’s a sense that something’s rotten at the core of things. George’s fear of letting the world know she has a girlfriend is initially played for comedy, but it speaks to Mae’s fear that she’s just a phase George is going through. And the hunger in Mae’s eyes whenever she’s thinking of George suggests she’s just found a new addiction to replace the one she reluctantly discusses at her local Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
Early on, most of the attempts at humor come from George going to absurd lengths to keep Mae a secret from her friends, and from the sketchiness of Mae’s NA sponsor Maggie (Sophie Thompson). Most of this feels several shades too broad for the performance Martin is giving, where the fictionalized Mae’s desire and vulnerability are palpable at all times. Martin’s primarily a writer and comedian with a tiny onscreen resume, but she plays the hell out of the role she’s co-written for herself.
The silliness at the series’ start is there to set up the darker turns it takes in the later episodes. Many of the jokes (including a running gag about George having a well-meaning but boundary-ignoring male flatmate) don’t quite land, but the season is so brief — six episodes, all 25 minutes or less — that you’ll already be on the more emotional later episodes before you’ve even noticed. When I began watching, Feel Good felt like an entertaining trifle; by the end, I was greatly invested in Mae’s story, and worried about how she would cope with all the mistakes she and George had made.
Which is exactly what you want in any kind of love story. Feel Good may deliberately subvert its own title, but it will absolutely make you feel something.
Feel Good debuts March 19th on Netflix.