[8 June 2008]
Absolutely Fabulous chronicles the life of Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders), a twice divorced single mother and owner of a public relations firm. She charged into swinging London in the ‘60s and has been clinging to it like a barnacle ever since. We meet her just before she turns 40, an inconvenient truth that’s beginning to interfere with her lifelong quest for celebrity. Another inconvenience is that Edina (Eddy to her friends) is two stone (28 pounds) overweight.
Her lifelong companion on this quest, Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley), is an ex fashion model and porn actress. She’s currently a fashion director at a top fashion magazine, a job she obtained by sleeping with the publisher. Patsy’s age is undetermined but at least she’s thin, having eaten nothing since 1973.
Edina and Patsy charge headlong into their pursuit of celebrity status, following every trend and fad and desperately trying to keep current. Seeing celebrity status more as a state of being (a sort of materialist’s nirvana) rather than recognition of achievement, they strive mightily while doing amazingly little work. They also drink, drug and smoke with complete abandon and one is never sure whether their unflinching selfishness and rampant vices is what’s keeping them from the top or are the only things keeping them in the game.
It’s a brilliant set up, especially since during the show one begins to suspect that Edina and Patsy are actually right in their approach to life. Combine this with one of the most talented casts of actresses ever assembled and you have the funniest comedy series in 30 years. Seriously, if this show doesn’t make you roll on the floor with laughter, you’d better get to a therapist quick because there’s something very wrong with you.
Absolutely Fabulous has some of the best physical comedy ever done. There’s nobody living who’s better at slapstick than Jennifer Saunders, though Lumley gives her a run for her money on some episodes. There are times in a woman’s life when she will experience a physical indignity. These traumatic events usually take quarts of ice cream, continuous support of concerned friends, and a couple of months of therapy before they are gotten over. Edwina and Patsy sail through such indignities every few minutes. It’s all superbly done and is on par with John Cleese’s best performances. In one episode, Edwina loses it and delivers a slap that would have made the Three Stooges gulp with disbelief. It made me roll on the floor.
The world of high fashion is a fertile field for sight gags and Absolutely Fabulous has so many layers of them that a normal scene appears rather strange. Edwina and Patsy misuse the latest fashions and technology on a massive scale. Bubble (Jane Horrocks), Edwina’s disastrously inept assistant, is always wearing amazingly bizarre and giggle-inducing outfits.
Sight gags and slapstick is one thing, but the real strength of the show lies with the ferocious honesty of the script and sheer force and fearlessness of the women cast in it. There’s been a lot of hype about Grrl power, but this show is full force Woman power. Saunders, Lumley and company make Sarah Silverman and Tina Fey look like shy girl scouts timidly selling cookies, and Rossane Barr is hesitant and demure in comparison. In Absolutely Fabulous in New York they unchain (figuratively) Whoopie Goldberg who gives her best performance since her unfortunate encounter with Ted Danson.
Glenn Close horrified most of male America into temporary fidelity by her portrayal of a spurned lover in Fatal Attraction. The women of Absolutely Fabulous can terrify you just as much yet somehow make you collapse with laughter when they boil your daughter’s pet bunny. Not that Edwina or Patsy would bother, since straight men are sought after but very disposable items that exist only to furnish them with orgasms, money, status and fashion design. (Not necessarily in that order) Gay men are vital fashion accessories and as such are deeply loved. Normally a guy would be a bit hurt by this worldview, but in this instance (straight) male viewers will feel a distinct sense of relief.
The relationships that Edwina has are another hilarious aspect of the show. Edwina is one of the worst mothers on the planet (Patsy’s mother takes the prize) and a large part of the show consists of her duels with her strait-laced teenaged daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha). Her son, Serge, fled to New York years ago and is actively hiding from her. Saffron has completely rejected everything that Edwina holds dear and suffers from Patsy’s jealous fury. Edwina is torn between the two. Patsy is a lot more fun even if she is parasitic, but Saffron is the only one who can run the house.
Edwina is as bad a daughter as she is a mother. Mrs. Monsoon (June Whitfield) takes Edwina in stride and is devoted to Saffron. She’s old school English and does an elegant job of coping with the emotional disasters that surround her. She and Saffy also give as good as they get, which makes for a lively show.
“Lively” is a rather pale word to describe what happens during the shows first four seasons and two specials. It’s really a succession of explosive disasters that occur as Edina and Patsy attempt to be rich, famous, thin and forever young with little or no effort. Most importantly, they never weaken and never let up.
One of the most irritating aspects of American comedy is the urge to show that everyone is, if not a good guy at heart, then at least redeemable. Fortunately, the British won’t stand for any of that nonsense and any good deeds done by Edwina or Patsy, with one small exception, are either accidental or are a result of exasperation. Edwina’s views on charity, for instance, are as hilarious as they are frighteningly accurate. Throughout the show, charity work is a useful fashion accessory that increases your glamour and visibility. Choosing the right cause can make your career or sustain sagging fame. Edwina comically uses charity as a means to attract celebrities to her events and as a marketing tool. In her world, charity is controlled by the least charitable.
Absolutely Fabulous also makes excellent use of numerous celebrities that appear on it by making them part of the daily life of the show instead of the center, though Marriane Faithful does appear as God. Reviewing this show is like writing an Oscar acceptance speech. There are so many wonderful actors in it and delightful aspects to it that to do justice to them all would require a book.
Unfortunately by the fifth season the show suddenly loses its charm. Insanity is often defined as an unchanging closed loop of thought and since Saunders so brilliantly portrays the insanity of glamour, the loop was bound to repeat itself. The hand having written moves on. Season Five and White Box have some good moments and in a way are a more accurate indictment of glamour and it’s pursuit than the previous seasons. But the selfishness becomes grating and the cruelty too disturbing to bear.
One definition of fabulous is something of or from a fable. The fifth season and White Box make a fitting end to the fable that Absolutely Fabulous is but the moral of any fable isn’t that enjoyable even if it is necessary and fitting. Fortunately the rest of the series and the other specials fit the first two definitions of fabulous.
The extra features are simply fabulous, as well. There are the usual interviews, outtakes and behind the scenes stuff. Joanna Lumley’s interview about modeling is very good. The audio commentary is the first one that I’ve heard that hasn’t reduced me to bored tears within minutes. What’s really great are the French and Saunders sketches that led to Absolutely Fabulous and the pilot episode for Mirror Ball.
Mirror Ball came out in 2000 and had the same cast as Absolutely Fabulous with the addition of the cabaret legend, George Hall. In this show the cast are actresses in different stages of professional decline. The plot centers around Vivienne Krell (Jennifer Saunders) and her attempt the land the role of the mother in Angela’s Ashes: The Musical. It’s all pretty head spinning and the show was cancelled as being too confusing, even for a BBC audience. Still, it’s a comedic gem.
Absolutely Fabulous: Absolutely Everything contains hours of wicked, side splitting tales that are as good as comedy gets. If we are very lucky, a show this funny may come along again in the next 30 years. Until then, we’ll have to comfort ourselves with this set.