Feel Good honestly explores bad times | Small Screen | Chicago Reader

Feel Good honestly explores bad times 

Stand-up Mae Martin’s new series gets heavy, but there’s always a laugh waiting around the corner.

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click to enlarge Feel Good

Feel Good

courtesy Netflix

Despite what the title suggests, Netflix and Channel 4's Feel Good might not be the comforting series you need right now—and it doesn't claim to be. It's a rallying cry for the queers, the addicts, and all of the ways they intersect, for better or for worse.

The series is based on stand-up Mae Martin's own story. She plays a fictionalized version of herself whose life gets increasingly complicated as she starts to date George (Charlotte Ritchie)—who has never dated a woman before—while trying not to let her history of addiction get in the way of what could be a really good thing.

Mae and George hit it off quickly after one of Mae's shows. Their first date is full of the delightfully awkward moments that so often make up gay relationships but are rarely depicted in that way. Questions like: Is this even a date? Is she into me or am I making this up? Should I kiss her? That would be cool, right?

They move in together in what seems like a blink of an eye—pause for U-Haul joke—and Mae quickly realizes that she can't keep hiding her past from George forever.

Full disclosure: I'm no stranger to addiction. It dominated my household growing up—whether it came from substances that made you feel numb or dangerous habits that made you smaller, more desirable to others—and no matter how much time passes, the scars left from addiction never really go away. Feel Good understands that better than most media about addiction I've seen, largely due to Martin's personal experiences, which help guide the series with a comforting authenticity.

With Feel Good, Martin makes it clear that she lost a lot of her life to addiction and burned some bridges along the way. Mae is in a 12-step program throughout the series, but her past—and her overwhelming guilt—is not far behind her. What the series really gets at the heart of, though, is that when addiction is a formative part of your upbringing, you start playing by its twisted rules in adulthood.

Addiction takes charge in your relationships with others, and you sometimes find yourself swapping substances for people in an attempt to suppress the parts of yourself that you think are inherently ugly. When George finds out Mae's history with addiction, she suggests Mae go back to meetings and continue with the program. "I had a problem," Mae says in response, "And now I have you."

Mae's character arc is defined by a need for escapism, whether it be from life or her own head. As a young person, that satisfaction came from drugs, but in adulthood it took the form of chasing romantic partners for a similar high. It's alluded by Mae's mother (Lisa Kudrow) that George is not the first person in her life to fill the void, and that she only loves the "idea" of people, not people themselves.

But what really makes Feel Good stand out is that while their relationship is complicated, the culpability isn't solely placed on Mae's shoulders. It's clear that they both have some growing up to do and some personal demons they have to confront.

For George, the biggest roadblock is opening up about her queerness to other people. Mae is the first non-cis man George has ever dated, and her less-than-accepting friends automatically assume that she's dating a man, so she just goes with it because it's easier. Queer people are used to living our lives in the shadows to some extent, but it cuts much deeper when that existence arises from your partner's own internalized shame. As Mae is treated more like a secret than a partner, she becomes a frustrated ball of insecurities. Mae often walks a fine line between feeling like she is too much to handle because of her past and feeling like she's not enough of a man for George to truly love her.

Mae also spends some time questioning her gender identity. In one scene, she claims to feel like a "failed version" of a girl and a boy, and she unfairly compares herself to men when she's with George, but that development unfortunately takes a bit of a backseat in the grand scheme of things.

It's true that Feel Good can be heavy sometimes, but there's always a blip of humor right around the corner. Martin is a natural at neurotic, self-deprecating humor—if this is your introduction to Martin, there's a whole world of her stand-up just waiting for you—and Kudrow glides on a hilarious mom-like energy that can only be described as unhinged.

Feel Good is a near-perfect show about imperfect people. It investigates how our lives and our relationships with others are so often predicated on our pasts and the sometimes toxic ways we've learned to cope. But it's not a show without hope. Rather, it brims with a reassuring optimism and the possibility of making real change, even if it means starting from zero.   v

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