The theme music is garish–an obscure Bob Dylan and the Band song (“This wheel’s on fire / Rolling down the road”) done Donny and Marie style. The scene is equally disturbing: three women trapped in a room. One, Edina, is a child of the 60s, successful but ridiculous looking–a middle-aged mess with a four-inch headband. Her best friend, Patsy, is an aging model type who spends her time spewing venom toward the third woman, Edina’s daughter, Saffron, who’s prim and repressed compared to the other two. The three snarl and spit at each other until the conversation climaxes with each relating her birth story in flashback. Each, it turns out, arrived on earth accompanied by some great indignity. “My mother didn’t give birth, she had something removed,” says Patsy morosely. On display are lacerating loneliness and alienation. Men are barely mentioned, much less present in their lives.
This is comedy? It’s one of the most stunning episodes of Absolutely Fabulous, the British TV series on the Comedy Central cable channel. The show is written by Jennifer Saunders, who plays the gloriously named Edina Monsoon as well. Fans of the show–which is on Mondays at 7:30 PM–anxiously await the third and last season of six episodes, beginning June 11. The show, basically a domestic sitcom centering on Edina’s and Patsy’s disheveled lives, is a disturbing combination of traditional comedic conventions–Saunders is a gifted physical comedian in the Lucille Ball mode, particularly given to grotesque pratfalls, double takes, and grimaces–and less traditional profanity, drug use, and sociopathic behavior. Edina is a former flower child who’s grown up to have inexplicable success as a fashion PR flack with a woefully stunted emotional makeup and a flicker of an attention span (she does, however, concentrate on her encroaching weight and age: she turns 40 in the show’s most apocalyptic episode). Patsy, a vacuous “fashion director” for a women’s magazine, lives on champagne and all-but-anonymous sex. She visits her office so infrequently she forgets where it is. A jealous friend of Edina’s, Patsy openly despises Saffron, whom she calls “a little bitch troll from hell” in one show and sells into white slavery in North Africa in another.
Buried in the quips, the insults, and the endless prattle about fashion and sex and drugs and weight is a startlingly harsh critique of a generation on the ropes. Absolutely Fabulous’s most devastating conceit is the role reversal between the childlike Edina and maternal Saffron, who studies hard, refuses to throw wild parties while Edina is away, and lectures her mother about drug use, staying out late, casual sex, and her choice of friends. But this is just shorthand for Saunders’s jaundiced view of the baby boomers’ custody of the world. Edina, who in moments of drunken romanticism will sing the praises of the 60s social conscience, pillages native villages for interior decoration, refuses to give her old clothes to the poor, and enthusiastically purveys superficiality as a vocation.
To her generation’s artistic aspirations Saunders gives short shrift as well. One of the show’s bleaker episodes is about the visit of a married couple, old friends of Edina’s who are initially seen in flashback as avant-garde artists living in a silent, all-white, furnitureless environment. But they arrive the shattered parents of an incessantly screaming infant. The show gleefully examines their debauching at the hands of both their baby and Edina. This is less about subversiveness–which is the best attribute of American television shows like Roseanne or The Simpsons–than it is an all-out attack on the entire concept of parenting. An exasperated Edina finally has sex with the husband, their brutish lovemaking broadcast through a baby intercom to the ears of the wife and Saffron, who together listen in horror. “I had to get them out of the house, darling,” Edina explains later.
Saunders is disgusted with babies but surprisingly gentle with the somewhat stiff but less than prudish Saffron, who can occasionally give as good as she gets: “Mum, you’ve absolved yourself of all responsibility. You live from self-induced crisis to self-induced crisis. Someone chooses what you wear….Someone tells you what to eat, and, three times a week, someone sticks a hose up your bum and flushes it all out for you.” But she’s also graced with emotional balance (only she mourns the passing of Edina’s father) and a searching desire for stability (an ongoing joke is Edina and Patsy’s taking advantage of her forgiving nature). The birthday party episode ends with a ferociously drunk and stoned Edina and Patsy atop the coffee table, spewing out songs from the halcyon 60s. One by one the disgusted guests leave; last to go is a reluctant Saffron. The show’s fourth wall falls as the pair roar into the Absolutely Fabulous theme song, bumping and grinding, two relics from a generation that thought it owned the world howling about a society they no longer recognize. On fire? Not anymore. And rolling? Hardly.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Brian Ritchie.