Wheels on Fire

Absolutely Fabulous is hard to explain. It shows a lot better than it tells. But I’ll give it a shot.

It’s a British comedy show that’s off and on for over a decade, starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. It’s not really designed for audiences outside the UK – it’s too unapologetically British, peppered with cultural references and expressions unfamiliar to – at least – Americans. It’s produced by Saunders and her longtime comedy partner, Dawn French. Male characters occasionally show up here and there, but mostly it’s a show made by women about women, and primarily for British audiences.

Stereotypes? Uh, no. To make charactes this unlikeable, you need stronger medicine than stereotypes.

Eddy (Saunders) and Patsy (Lumley) are two women well into adulthood who have made responsibility avoidance into an art form. They’re amoral and self-centered, only (rarely) doing the right thing by accident or when it coincides with something they wanted anyway. Eddy’s daughter was so neglected while Mum was off having a blast that she had to have her stomach pumped three times by the time she was five years old. Eddy’s son fled to the US long ago, and has his father and sister conspiring to keep Eddy unaware of his whereabouts. Patsy’s an ex-model and drug addict who takes the traditional role of the evil step-father to Eddy’s daughter – whom she wishes were dead, so she could have all of Eddy’s attention. And somehow, they always come out on top. Well, when they do lose, no one can tell – by the time they get done telling it, everything was absolutely fabulous.

Why are we not bitching about the way these women are portrayed? Because they’re not some writer’s twisted fantasy of what’s wrong with women in general – they are simply two really horrible human beings. And that’s exactly the way the writers see it, too.

If you strip the comedy from the show, you’re left with a Greek tragedy and a half. Both Eddy and Patsy had mothers who were completely emotionally unavailable, who dangled their affections like a carrot to manipulate everyone around them. You find yourself understanding where they’re coming from even though you can’t forgive them for continuing to pass it on. If you presented this thing as a drama, I really have to wonder what network would air it. Of course, that’s the beauty of comedy – laughter is the sugar that makes the nasty-tasting truth go down before you realize what you’ve swallowed.

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