This article was originally published in The Courier on 22nd February 2014.
My Mad Fat Diary: Monday, E4
Edge of Heaven: Friday, STV
As the old saying goes, if you remember the 1990s that's because they only ended 14 years ago. It barely feels like the past at all. Also, I personally find it difficult to wax nostalgically about the decade of my teens and twenties, if only because doing so makes me feel horrifyingly old.
But that's one of the reasons why I enjoy the charming teen comedy-drama My Mad Fat Diary: despite being set during the Britpop era, it never wallows in cheap nostalgia. The soundtrack may be rammed full of hits by the likes of Black Grape and Oasis, but its evocation of those years is anything but mindless and celebratory. The unfussily realised period setting is all but incidental.
The focus rests instead on the growing pains of Rae, an overweight teenage girl suffering from severe depression and anxiety. Yet despite the sombre subject matter, it manages to find welcome jabs of lightness and humour amid the gloom. It's a delicate balancing act, skilfully exercised.
Based on the diaries of author Rae Earl, it's clearly dredged from a laudable well of sincerity. It also benefits from a sensitive, likeable, vanity-free performance from Scottish actress Sharon Rooney as Rae. A realistically flawed character, she may be sweet and sympathetic but she's hardly an idealised pathos machine. Her moments of surliness, usually directed towards her well-meaning mother, are an effective way of staving off sentimentality.
Like the short-lived yet much-loved teen drama My So Called Life, starring Clare Danes and produced in the actual 1990s, My Mad Fat Diary isn't interested in depicting a bowdlerised version of teenage life. It's laudably warts and all.
As series two commenced, Rae was seemingly happy at last. Head over heels in love with her boyfriend, her only pressing concern was losing her virginity before starting college. However, in a poignant twist typical of the show, it was eventually revealed that Rae was living in denial. The narrative device of an optimistic letter to her best friend, Tix, was, it transpired, a red herring. It was a manifestation of grief. Tix, who also suffered from mental health problems, had died, presumably by suicide. Still in a trough of despair, Rae nevertheless took the important step of realising she still has a long way to go in therapy.
Few shows of my recollection have handled mental illness in such a sensitive and believable way. That it's produced by the otherwise tactless Channel 4 makes it all the more remarkable.
If I was ever tasked with making a parody of a generic, awful British sitcom, chances are I'd come up with something along the lines of Edge of Heaven. Joyless hack-work, this bland, predictable, primary-coloured comedy dutifully encompasses every miserable sitcom cliché. The daffy granny! The sex-mad mum! The fiery foreigner! The wacky gay couple! The chirpy ukulele soundtrack! It's pitiful.
And what's the point of setting it in an '80s-themed bed and breakfast? Aside from a brief snippet of Madonna's Holiday (to signify that someone was going on holiday), it didn't even feature any '80s music. Are we supposed to find the sight of a Wham 'Choose Life' t-shirt inherently amusing?
And a quick note to the production team: far from being an inspired visual gag, the conical bra-shaped keys to the hotel's Madonna suite merely illustrated your ineptitude, as Madge didn't actually adopt that look until 1990. You fools.