With Friends Like These
It’s about your mum. She’s a filthy slag. Get her out of here.—Karen, Pulling
I don’t trust him. I walked in on him when he was cleaning out the ladies’ toilet. He was smiling.—Donna, Pulling
The rambunctious spawn of writers Sharon Horgan and Dennis Kelly, Pulling is a riotous, celebratory portrayal of blundering hedonism, and a blistering indictment of modern dating hell. The title is a commonly-used British slang term, which describes the act of ensnaring a sexual partner.
Veering between excruciating accuracy and anarchic caricature it’s a dark and shrewdly drawn depiction of Britain’s half-cut culture. Wickedly, wonderfully transgressive in its filthy shamelessness, Pulling is as cheeky and disgustingly pleased with itself as a teenager who discovers he can light his own farts.
The opening episode sees disenchanted bride-to-be Donna (Sharon Horgan) drunkenly resolve—amidst her hen-night carnage—to end her engagement to nice but crap Karl (Cavan Clerkin). The subsequent, mortifying break-up sees Karl take momentary leave of his senses, running full pelt into a door before vomiting. Donna is taken under the wings of her sympathetic but degenerate friends Karen (Tanya Franks) and Louise (Rebekah Staton), who consign her cheerfully to their “shit room”, and so the unholy triumvirate are unleashed onto our screens.
The following five episodes of season one chart the trials of the three flatmates as they attempt to live, work and date ‘under the influence’. Pulling transcends its unremarkable premise with the skill and gusto of its execution. In Karen’s own words it transforms, “a toilet into a tiara”.
The three reasonably unfamiliar leads are a revelation; complementing and contrasting each other to striking effect. Tanya Franks is dynamite as deadpan, alcoholic misanthropist Karen, spitting acidic insults timed to annihilating perfection, and consuming men and booze in equal measure. Consider this exchange:
Louise: “What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without sex?”
Karen: “Twelve years.”
Louise: “Karen, are you talking about the first twelve years of your life?”
Karen: “A week then.”
Rebekah Staton makes Louise’s maniacal optimism a guilty pleasure; she is a radiantly deranged bunny-boiler, with the broad smile and wild eyes of a Bedlamite. Donna’s craven pratfalls are executed to perfection by the show’s co-creator Sharon Horgan; an actress of exceptional natural comic talent, she is superb at squirming in horrifying but acutely believable situations. And it would be hideously remiss of me to neglect to mention the excellent Cavan Clerkin as the put-upon Karl, who gives us a master-class in misery.
The season finale presents us with an extraordinary creation in the shape of Louise’s mum Eileen (Karen Henthorn). Described as a cross between “[British soap legend] Lynn Perrie and Wolverine”, as she watches Eileen ‘work it out’ on the dance-floor Karen comments, “She’ll be dancing even more now, I’ve just seen her slip an E up her arse.” Eileen is a brilliantly grotesque creation, albeit recognisably the sort of predatory middle-aged woman that unsympathetic human freak-parade The Jeremy Kyle Show [the dead-eyed British equivalent of The Jerry Springer Show] makes its stock-in-trade.
Pulling is not without a heart, but the rare, almost conciliatory moments of poignancy or regret are swiftly undermined by a kind of gleeful recidivism. It’s a remarkable feat, and testament to the writers and performers, that the show wrings so much humour and generates such goodwill toward characters who, on the face of it, are pretty monstrous.
Although it’s refreshing that its three leads are female, Pulling does not deal in gender-specific scenarios; instead it operates something of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Tellingly, it’s the product of a mixed-gender writing collaboration and, as Dennis Kelly describes in the commentary, details from his own relationship history are played out by the trio of female leads.
In Autumn 2008, Pulling’s host channel BBC3 announced their frankly rubbish decision not to commission a third series of this BAFTA award-nominated sitcom, to the reported surprise of those involved in its production; and to the chagrin of both its critics and the numerous fans who made it a ratings hit. This is from the channel whose asinine programming output was famously and quite brilliantly derided by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight:
Pulling is both a product of a society which rabidly consumes such sewer-brow idiocy (Horgan is the narrator of BBC3s aforementioned Freaky Eaters; the series itself trades in guttural humour and trash culture references), and its antithesis – a hilarious, exquisitely-acted, original British comedy.
Although its sporadic references to crummy pop-culture figures serve to further establish its roots and give it a budget charm, the allusions to mumsy daytime talk-show host Judy Finnegen and disgraced TV psychiatrist Raj Persaud are unlikely to provoke laughter away from home. Hopefully this won’t alienate international audiences who should find plenty of well-observed material to amuse and perhaps even 0- whether you admit it or not—identify with.
I keenly urge you to give Pulling a try as, for all their scurrilous antics these girls and this sitcom make me be proud to be British. These three may be lying in the gutter but they’re definitely looking at the stars.
The extras are more than adequate. The two commentaries are packed with lively, likable banter from writers Sharon Horgan and Dennis Kelly, director Tristram Shapeero and producer Phil Bowker, and are as casually filthy as the show itself. Sharon Horgan’s quick wit and scatological obsession are particularly entertaining; speaking of a favourite scene she comments, “When I saw it I nearly popped out a pile”. And Dennis Kelly reveals that the horrendous break-up sequence from episode one was based on a real experience, which he describes as “a sustained assault for an entire weekend”.
The documentary A Look Behind the Scenes, filmed on set, is endearing if inadequate in length. Interviews with Cast & Crew – If You Liked Pulling provides the positive, and seemingly honest, set of interviews relating to the production. The set also includes Interviews with Cast & Crew – If You Didn’t Like Pulling where the little tinkers clearly have a ball pretending there was friction on set and making up scandalous back stories. Numerous entertaining deleted scenes, including one where Karen is run down by a moped and comes-to thinking she is about to have sex, round off the package.