07 January 2012

Patsy & Edina Ride Again

Seems like old times: Bubble reenacts the Royal Wedding.
Left to right: Jennifer Saunders (Edina), Jane Horrocks (Bubble), Julia Sawalha (Saffy), Joanna Lumley (Patsy), Christopher Malcolm (Justin).

On the strength of the first of three new episodes of Absolutely Fabulous, Jennifer Saunders is back in form. That episode was broadcast in Britain over the Christmas holiday; immediately, it leaked to the Internet, where I watched it. The official U.S. premiere is Sunday evening, on Logo, a cable channel.

It’s great fun to be reunited with Edina Monsoon (Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley), but especially so since many other AbFab specials have been such lackluster affairs. For a while, it even seemed possible that Saunders had forgotten how to write her show. Again and again, she’d resorted to a cavalcade of celebrity guest stars, whose turns were seldom as much fun as the misbehavior and interactions of the family/coven of Patsy, Eddy, Saffy, Mother, and Bubble. Moreover, the rich and famous stole time and focus away from those core characters. In short, we were cheated: promised AbFab but given something far less satisfying.

At least for the first new episode, Saunders has learned her lesson. We even get — bliss! — a long kitchen-table scene in which the women discuss the latest trends and gossip. Merely reading a magazine can lead reliably to a scene of great dialogue in this series, and here we get commentary on hot topics such as the Kardashians and Prince William’s wedding, brilliantly reenacted by Bubble. It seems like old times — and good times, at that.

Shopping, sweetie.

What makes such scenes funny is anger — of a sort that can’t quite be expressed when the real-life celebrity is standing next to you. Oftentimes, AbFab has struck me as an extended shriek of protest against the images of womanhood purveyed in popular culture. The central characters react accordingly: Patsy and Eddy try to keep up with every latest anything, Saffy lectures and abstains. When she allows herself the freedom, Saunders makes it all funny.

When the series first appeared in the United States, another analysis of AbFab held me captive: it seemed to be a show about two drag queens, bedecked in flamboyant costumes, prone to outrageous behavior and provocative conversation. (Small wonder that, from the first day forward, men started dressing up as Patsy and Eddy.) The catch was that women played the leads, making the show more palatable, if only a little less subversive, for a mainstream audience. Just as drag often comments on society’s notions of sex, so too does AbFab, and nowadays I hold to my original interpretation, if not quite so emphatically.

But that’s from the highbrow. From the heart, what you need to know about the AbFab reunion is that the familiar characters are delightfully true to themselves — despite some surprising new situations. (For instance, the person you’d least expect has just spent two years in prison.) That’s always been the strength of AbFab: taking two perfectly awful women and listening to what they say. We don’t really care what Elton John or Whoopi Goldberg says here; we care about Patsy and Eddy and their continuous collisions with the universe.

Eurydice Colette Clytemnestra Dido Bathsheba Rabelais Patricia Cocteau Stone

Plot is nearly superfluous in this show: what matters is never that Edina rents a house in France or drives her own car to the supermarket, but what she says (and what she drinks) when she gets there. As a writer, Saunders has sometimes misjudged her work, as when she decided that AbFab was really about a mother–daughter relationship, as if that were what set the show apart from anything that had ever been on television before. We’d seen plenty of mothers and daughters, but we’d never seen Patsy Stone.

One advantage, however, to Saunders’ long and sometimes erratic writing process is the development of character relationships that redeem the otherwise irredeemable Patsy and Eddy: this means that they’re still fun to hang out with. The ladies may take their sweet time getting around to it, but in the end, their devotion to one another (and even to Saffy) conquers all. At the same time, no matter how extravagant their excesses, we can see that Patsy and Eddy are admirable, in their way. There’s something courageous, even heroic, about their struggles to have a good time, to stay young forever, to get to the top and stay there.

The enduring alliance: Edina and Patsy

The first new episode includes some terrific scenes in which Eddy helps Patsy make sense of her finances (confronting a bureaucrat who, in earlier “specials,” would have been played by somebody famous), and in which Saffy is left a very long time wondering whether her mother will ever stick up for her in what is surely the direst conflict she’s had to face (with an ex-convict who, likewise, might have been played by a celebrity but is instead played by a highly competent actress).

All of the leading ladies look terrific, too. Jane Horrocks (Bubble) and June Whitfield (Mother) have aged most notably, but they’re still charmers — and mercifully, the Katie Grin character seems to have vanished. (Saunders devised Katie to give the chronically underused Horrocks more to do, as well as a more mature role than that of the adolescent Bubble — but I’ve always found Katie relentlessly unfunny, uninteresting, and unsatisfying.) Julia Sawalha looks exactly the same as ever, but they’ve given up any pretense to Saffy’s still being a schoolgirl. Now she’s creeping up on middle age — which of course is what she was born for.

Clearly, I’m not the only one pleased with the results of this reunion. In the press, Jennifer Saunders has begun talking again about an AbFab movie, to be set in the South of France. Much of the English-speaking world probably knows nothing of the terrible French movie that was already made, years ago. Having endured the French version, on an airplane from which, remarkably, I did not jump, I might not be enthusiastic about the prospects of a new movie — even an authentic one.

But on the strength of this reunion, I say, “Bring it on.” I can use a good dose of extravagance and audacity right about now.

What’s wrong with this picture? Everything!
Josiane Balasko as Eddie Mousson (French for “monsoon”) with Johnny Hallyday’s real-life ex, the great Nathalie Baye, as Patricia. Boy, she must really have needed the money. Absolument Fabuleux (2001) set back the cause of French cinema by approximately four centuries: now they’re going to have to invent movies all over again.

No comments: