When the first series of My Mad Fat Diary began, you could be forgiven for thinking it was another E4 teen drama, that like Skins and Misfits before it, the moments where its ideas come together to form something lovely would be vastly outnumbered by the moments where it fell flat on its face. So concerned with being provocative, clever, and gimmicky are our scripted dramas for teens that things like character and plot fell by the wayside, and much of the the promotional material for MMFD pointed towards a show about a day-glo portrait of a loud, brash, sex-obsessed teen girl who was going to be spending so much time shouting about how mad and sex-obsessed she was that we’d never really get to know her.
The reality was very different. For one, it being set (and soundtracked) in the mid-90s means that it avoids any pressure to shoehorn in any on-the-pulse references and music. And sure, Rae Earl is often loud, brash, mad, sex-obsessed – but she’s also a person. Over the two series of My Mad Fat Diary we’ve learnt a lot about Rae and how she responds to those around her; her complex, detailed relationships with her mother and her best friend Chloe; her increasingly complicated relationship with her therapist Kester; and the massive insecurities she faces when amongst her peers. By the time that series two ends we have a portrait of a young woman who is trying desperately not to be defined by her illness or by other people’s perception of her but by who she has the potential to be. What’s more, the despite the show’s forced, nearly totally subjective perspective, the focus is never solely on her. The show’s writers have let the supporting characters, in particular Rae’s egotistical, emotional mother, blossom into fully-fledged people in their own right, and in the show’s best episode they even shift the perspective to Chloe’s and reveal the world that’s going on outside of Rae’s head. In short, My Mad Fat Diary is the best TV show about adolescence since Freaks and Geeks, and maybe the best British show about adolescence ever made.
The wonderful thing about the second series has been how it hasn’t bothered re-establishing characters or themes, instead choosing to plonk Rae straight into new situations without allowing her, or us, to catch a breath. Where the first series was about her becoming part of a circle of friends and leaving her old life in a mental institution behind, this series has been about the gradual dismantling of her life outside as she starts going to sixth form college and the friendship group she’s so ably become a part of begins to grow apart. This is 100% accurate to the transition from secondary school to sixth form, when everyone is still the same but suddenly everyone is wearing their normal clothes and their priorities are different from each other. Sometimes, people have to grow apart to grow up, and here this is handled so beautifully. No big incident that splits the group up, but a series of smaller ones, all of which happen because these characters are trying pursue their own lives without thinking of each others’. It’s this more than anything that tells us that this writing team understand the rhythm of teenage lives and the heartbreak of not knowing how to pursue your own impending adulthood whilst keeping your relationships intact.
Of course, the nature of the show and its diary-voiceover premise means that Rae will always be the centre of this solar system (apart from the one episode where she isn’t) and actress Sharon Rooney does a remarkable job of holding the show together even as Rae is falling apart. Rae is almost inevitably doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over, continually tripped up as she is by her own insecurities, and Rooney manages to make each defeat sting as much as the last. Her relationship with her trainwreck of a mother (played pitch-perfectly by Claire Rushbrook) has to be one of the most complicated mother-daughter relationships ever depicted on the small-screen: both of them need the other desperately but do not understand each other at all, and both of them desperately need emotional support from each other but have no idea how to ask for it, so that they continually disappoint each other and let each other down. Rushbrook and the show’s writers do an amazing job of stopping her just-short of being monster – instead, she’s a woman who doesn’t quite know how to be a mother, much less how to balance her own needs with her daughters. And of course, Rae lets her down just as much as the other way round.
In the end, Rae’s increased isolation from her mother and her friends, coupled with her inability to take her clothes off around dreamboat Finn, lead her to an overreliance on her therapist Kester, a terrible-idea relationship with loudmouth patient Liam, and to seek out her long-absent father (who is sadly underused)/ Again, it’s no one’s fault in any of these cases. With Kester, she steps over the line going over to his house and attempting to cross the bridge between patient-doctor to friends, but her feelings of betrayal and anger towards him are exacerbated by his inability to not become personally invested in his patients. Should we get a third series it would be fascinating to learn more about Kester’s home-life and the woman he’s apparently dating – once again the writers have given us a glimpse of another life that has intentionally remains obscured by the show’s narrow lens.
Her relationship with Liam, though, is decidedly more complicated. When he first appears, mouthing off in a group therapy session, he’s positioned as a viable alternative to main love-interest Finn. Where Finn is popular, stable, and attractive, Liam is an outcast like Rae. Unlike Rae, though, he’s perfectly happy being “fucked-up”, and though this is exhilarating to her at first, he eventually becomes just another easy way out, someone to turn to when she becomes too scared of integrating herself into the world around her. She eventually loses her virginity to him, clothes-on and lights off, not out of caring for him but because by this point she’s realised how damaged he is and by sleeping with him is allowing her to indulge the part of her that feels she isn’t good enough for a real relationship. Her rejection of him isn’t quite a kiss-off – there’s a sense that they’ll at least try to stay friends – but a sign that she’s not going to allow herself to stay broken, that by staying with him she’ll never be able to heal herself. This may make Liam sound like a villain to an extent, but while he’s often a total jerk, much care is taken to explain why he is the way he is and that he’s created this obnoxious persona as a way of confronting a world that he feels is perpetually unjust and unattainable to him.
It’s a shame that some of the more minor characters aren’t developed as well as the key ones. Chop and Izzy still aren’t as fleshed out as they could be, and their breakup and reconciliation, along with Chop’s homophobia toward Archie, are some of the show’s more soapy conceits that never ring as true as everything else that’s going on. Danny, the sweet boy who was friends with Rae in hospital, is given some beautiful moments, but without Tix and Rae’s hospital life is never fully integrated into the large plot either.
Archie, however, gets more to work with, and his eventual coming out is one of the series’ great triumphant moments – that is, until it’s diminished by Chop’s obvious difficulty with it. Archie’s been an interesting character throughout – he doesn’t have the history with Rae that Chloe has and isn’t the love interest that Finn is, so he’s often been allowed his own plotlines entirely separate from Rae that exist to inform and comment upon the larger story: in the first series his secret homosexuality mirrored Rae’s secret illness, this series his struggle with coming out has mirrored Rae inability to have sex.
But no character has really shone like Jodie Comer’s wonderful portrayal of Chloe. In the first series Rae and Chloe’s relationship was described as one of those that arise when two people have been friends since they were little kids and now that they’re teenagers aren’t quite sure how to relate to each other, even though they still care deeply for each other. But in this series’ penultimate episode, where for the first time we’re given a chance to step outside of Rae’s perspective and into Chloe’s, we see that their relationship runs much deeper than that. At first, as Chloe goes missing and Rae steals her diary to try to find out where she is, we’re treated to something that resembles, of all things, The X-Files episode “Bad Blood”, where previous scenes from earlier episodes are replayed with slight differences intended to make Chloe look better. As we see her coming on to the gym teacher that will eventually lead her to get an abortion and kiss Finn behind Rae’s back, we’re lead to believe that this girl is so self-obsessed and self-promoting that she’d even change events in her own diary to make herself look better.
But as the episode continues and we see how much Chloe has been worrying about and caring for Rae, we begin to realise that Chloe’s version of events may be just as valid. It’s quite a risk for a TV show to suggest that their protagonist might have been an unreliable narrator all along, but it really pays off here, helping us understand Chloe with an intimacy that the show usually reserves for Rae only and showing Rae that Chloe is just as damaged and in need as she is. The show had been wisely holding back on letting Rae have a full-on breakdown up until this point, and when it does come it feels entirely earned. Upon reading Chloe’s diary, the bottom genuinely falls out of her world, and the spiral of shame and guilt that follows feels utterly disastrous because anyone would feel how she feels if they had let their best friend down the way she did. Chloe lets Rae down when she won’t leave the party where Rae is sexually assaulted, but Rae ignores Chloe just when she needs her most too, neither of them meaning to but unable to see past their own issues. This isn’t teen angst or melodrama – what Rae is faced with is incredibly difficult, incredibly realistic, and the stakes are incredibly high.
Thankfully, we get a happy ending in the end. She reaches the brink, but eventually saves herself by learning that she’s only worth what she says she’s worth, and that she is, and always has been, a part of the world around her. That may seem trite, but it’s something that many people never learn, and many people Rae’s age could do with hearing. What’s more, she learns this with the help of fairly-realistically portrayed cognitive-behavioural therapy – it may be dramatised somewhat, by My Mad Fat Diary knows that recovery doesn’t come from one-off, life-changing instances like the near-death of a mother and unborn sister, but from hard work and commitment to learning to love yourself.
“You’re the glue,” Finn tells her, and upon realising this Rae discovers that she can even support others, rescuing Chloe from the sexually aggressive creeps that she’d turned to when her self-esteem had hit rock bottom and saving her friendship group from a permanent disintegration. Maybe a few of the scenes in the final episode’s closing victory lap seem a little bit too neat, but god knows she’s earned that final, breathtaking scene. Because My Mad Fat Diary was never a story about a mad, fat girl. It was a story about how mental illness doesn’t make you an outcast, it doesn’t exclude you from the real world.The beauty of the show from the very beginning was that Rae’s size and illness was only ever an issue to her: it took no time at all for Chloe, Finn, Archie et. al. to embrace her as one of their own. The only person stopping her was herself. So, as the music fades and Rae disrobes, we, all of us, feel a weight lifting; finally, this wonderful girl realises her worth. It remains to be seen whether we’ll get a third series, but if we do, I’m sure we’ll find out that the road to recovery isn’t so smooth. For now, though, let’s be happy that Rae’s happy.