Will Sharpe's 'Flowers' Puts a Pretty Funny Spin on the Unfunny Subject of Mental Illness
Most attempts to address mental illness through the lens of comedy fail miserably. Flowers, however, does not.
Spirit Entertainment Ltd
20 Jun 2016 (UK)
I'm about to attempt to sell you on a show about mental illness. Not any show, mind, but a comedy. It's called Flowers.
Maurice Flowers (Julian Barratt) is a children's author, now struggling to write, despite the support of his young Japanese illustrator, Shun (Will Sharpe), who lives with the family. Maurice's wife Deborah (Olivia Colman) is a music teacher, and their 25-year-old twins, failed inventor Donald (Daniel Rigby) and sensitive musician Amy (Sophia Di Martino), still live at home and are both in love with the same woman. The last resident of the household is Maurice's mother (Leila Hoffman) who has dementia.
With me so far?
The British comedy debuted on Channel 4 (and the now-defunct Seeso) in 2016 and in the first moments of the first episode, we watch Maurice fail to kill himself. His mother also watches and in what seems like an attempt to protect him (or the family), she tries to hide the evidence. As a result, she's dead by the second episode.
Yes, I promise you. It's a funny show.
Olivia Colman as Deborah and Julian Barratt as Maurice (© This picture may be used solely for Channel 4 programme publicity purposes in connection with the current broadcast of the program. / IMDB)
Maurice spends the rest of the first series trying to explain to his family what he did and why he did it. Everyone knows something is wrong, of course, but no one knows how to help. Deborah's strategy is desperation -- she desperately tries to cheer him up (for their anniversary she gives him a book called How to Be Happy, which comes with a free DVD) while she also desperately pretends she's alright with the changes in their relationship (she embraces their 'open marriage' by awkwardly flirting with other men and jealously worrying that Maurice and Shun are sleeping together).
His children aren't much help either. Donald is still a child despite his grown body, spending his days unsuccessfully inventing needless items while Amy primarily stays in her room, trying to perfect music we all know will never be just right. They're both socially awkward, having voluntarily trapped themselves in the safety of a world where they can't grow up, despite knowing what that choice costs them.
Shun, who left Japan after a family tragedy, does his best to keep the Flowers happily together. He is devoted to Maurice, whose work means more to him than just a paycheck. He is kind and encouraging to the rest of the family, blissfully untroubled by Deborah's suspicions and Donald's aggressive rejection.
Daniel Rigby as Donald (IMDB)
The second series was broadcast on Channel 4 in June of this year. Maurice is now trying to thrive in treatment, Deborah's written her own book, Daniel's started a business, and Amy has a girlfriend (Harriet Walker) and a band. Yet the family's troubles are far from over: Deborah abruptly leaves Maurice which sends him into a spiral, Daniel is starting to face the fact that life is passing him by, and Amy's investigation of her family's past leads to full-blown mania. Even Shun has lost his spark; now that Maurice is no longer writing, Shun has no real purpose anymore and drifts into alcoholism.
Nothing here sounds all that funny. I know that. And most attempts to take a serious look at mental health issues via a comedic lens fail miserably: they often involve mocking or oversimplifying the pain of mental illness. Over-the-top acting and nice and tidy happy endings don't help either.
Flowers does not rely on any of these things.
Its success is in part due to the perfect casting and performances. Julian Barratt is best known for comedy, particularly his partnership with Noel Fielding in the comedy series, The Mighty Boosh. His delivery and reactions are key to the humour of Flowers, yet his portrayal of suffering is so raw and real, it breaks your heart. He embodies Maurice's depression through his voice, face, and movements. Those who've experienced that kind of pain will be familiar with the subtle clues -- a glance, a tone, silence; Barratt captures details that those with the illness know others overlook.
Olivia Colman has obviously already proven herself as both a comedic and dramatic actor. She seems to have appeared in almost every great comedy of the new millennium -- The Office, Black Books, Green Wing, That Mitchell and Webb Look, Rev., and Fleabag to name just a few. She was equally brilliant in her dramatic roles in Broadchurch and The Night Manager, and she'll be replacing Claire Foy as the Queen for the third and fourth series of The Crown. Her portrayal of Deborah is rich; she loves Maurice and wants him to be happy, but his misery is making her life miserable and her patience, for her own sake, cannot be unlimited.
Amy's role is played with perfect intensity by Sophia Di Martino. She's weird -- she's the weird girl who draws and writes and stares and smiles and scowls, and no one knows quite what to make of her. Her agitated thinking is shown in the first series, but becomes even more disquieting in the second, when Amy sets out to unravel a mystery hidden in her family's past. This curiosity becomes an obsession which becomes a manic episode, and Di Martino does it wonderfully. Again, those who know will recognise that her quick talking and exaggerated movements reveal something more than eager excitement and that the moment she figures it all out is not going to lead to saving the family, despite her certainty that it will.
Sophia Di Martino as Amy (IMDB)
Daniel Rigby is a part of some of the most straightforward comedy in the show. Donald's man-child brattiness makes him mostly obnoxious, but as the show develops, his character's complexity is revealed. It's clear to us (and possibly to him) that he's not special, that he will never get the attention he desperately needs -- this defeat is revealed in the fury that motivates his cruelty. Rigby balances Donald's clipped, sharp remarks with vulnerability; we might initially laugh, but we see there's sadness in him, too.
The character of Shun is also involved in some of the more obvious comedy. Will Sharpe plays with stereotypes in the role; The Guardian's Ben Arnold admitted, "To call it racist would be excessive, but it definitely cuts close to the bone." However, Sharpe told Arnold: "I've got Japanese family, and I wanted to go to the edge of what I find fun about some of the Japanese people in my life... Often it's cheeriness, I suppose, and the way the English language comes out. I find that enjoyable. If I had to psychoanalyse it, maybe I'm trying to own it... I might as well own it, and run with it, do the best version of it that you can" ("Flowers: Olivia Colman and Julian Barratt come together to fall apart", The Guardian, 25 Apr 2016). The strategy allows Shun's apparent innocence to be a virtue at first -- he offers the possibility of hope to the Flowers family. When we come to understand what's inspired his need for hope and then watch as that hope starts to fade, it's a gut punch that takes our breath away.
Sharpe's choice about how to play Shun was not an actorly one; he also wrote and directed the series. It's the decisions he made in these roles that make Flowers as funny and moving as it is.
It's also beautiful. Colour is used effectively; the two series take place in different seasons, partly, Sharpe says, to make the first feel more like a memory but also because, as we shift from Maurice's depression to Amy's bipolar diagnosis, a warmer palette and texture better fit that focus ("The 'Flowers' cast talk series two of the hit dark comedy", BUILD LDN, 6 Jun 2018). Add to that the gorgeous soundtrack by Arthur Sharpe, and there's a magical feel to the show.
This magical aspect occasionally becomes fantastical during scenes where we see into the characters' heads. We peek into one of Daniel's dreams; we witness Amy's logic as it morphs her family into characters in paintings from a previous generation. The scenes are confusing and disturbing, and they are effective in showing us how real the stories in our heads feel and how they can bleed into our actual lives.
Even the way the show was broadcast added to the intensity: Channel 4 had both series start with two episodes on a Monday night, showing one every night until Friday. Giving it an almost binge-watch feel reflects how relentless mental illness can be -- there's barely time to recover from one episode before the next begins.
The balance of humour and heartbreak in the show was Sharpe's intention from the very beginning. In a blog he wrote for the mental health charity MIND (he consulted with MIND for the second series), he said: "With 'Flowers', we never laugh at the characters, or make fun of how they're feeling. But while it goes to quite challenging and emotional territory, at other times it's just trying to make you laugh. It's quite happy to be just be silly."
He went on to explain: "I don't believe that having a mental illness rules out a joyful and fulfilling life and I don't believe it rules out laughter. I think laughter is an important way to make ourselves feel better and that it can be an invaluable tool when trying to work through and understand the heaviest subjects" ("How we went about portraying mental health in 'Flowers'", MIND, 15 Jun 2018).
He has succeeded in this balance. The Independent's Lily Pearson praised the show's "ability to depict serious and sometimes harrowing moments with downright hilarity [as] second to none" ("Julian Barratt: how TV show Flowers tackles mental health with humour", The Independent, 25 Jun 2018). With every episode, I have laughed aloud and I have sobbed. And once I called out No! and sat for a few moments in silence as the credits ran.
Articles about the show often struggle to name its exact genre -- is it a comedy drama, a black comedy, or perhaps simply "a Beckettian look at mental illness through a kaleidoscopic magic realist lens doused in folklore and gothic imagery" (Rosie Fletcher, "Flowers series 2 episodes 1 & 2 review", Den of Geek, 11 Jun 2018)? Regardless of the precise label they give it, almost all reviews acknowledge that it's like nothing else on television. The acting, the visuals, the music all contribute to its singularity, of course, but ultimately, it's the way it tells the story of mental illness that sets this show apart.
As someone with depression, I can say I have never seen such as accurate portrayal on television. During series one, Maurice's struggle is so real -- he knows he has to tell his wife the truth, but he physically can't, which only makes everything that much harder. That cycle is so painfully true. It's not pretty, it's not likeable, but it's true.
Maite Jáuregui, Sophia Di Martino, Amie Buhari, Sophie Brooke, Desiree Akhavan, Mariam Haque (IMDB)
Sharpe said he wanted "the audience to get a sense of how helpless you can feel in the face of mental illness, of how relentless and confusing it can be, and how painful it is to love somebody who is suffering" (ibid. Sharpe at MIND). This is precisely what he does. Compassion abounds in this show: in the final episode of series one when Deborah finds out the truth, your heart will break for every single character. We also meet two spouses whose partners' suicides were successful, and they offer Maurice and Deborah (and us) additional insight. Sharpe has not simplified mental illness into a nice, neat package, but instead respectfully lets each story be heard, each experience be acknowledged.
The role of creativity in these characters' lives is also a superb feature of Flowers. They all want to make something of their pain -- to rid themselves of it as well as to share for the benefit of others. Daniel wants his inventions to gain him respect, but he also wants them to help people. Deborah's memoir is her way of saying that those who love someone with a mental illness also matter. And Maurice's children's books -- lines of which are poignantly weaved throughout the first series -- make other people happy, even in faraway countries, even when he fails to make bring happiness to his family at home. Along with Amy's music and Shun's art, the show reminds us that suffering and beauty are not mutually exclusive.
The final episode of the second series was so perfectly done, it's hard to know whether or not more episodes of Flowers will, or should, come. As much as I enjoyed the show, the narrative of the two series has made its message powerful and clear. Even if they never appear on our screens again, these characters will stay with us and hopefully positively impact the way we approach mental health in the real world, in each other's lives and in our own.