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Absolutely Fabulous

July 22, 2016

When I was growing up, PBS was always television’s bastion of taste and respectability, featuring science documentaries and classy adaptations of theater and literature. And then there were the British shows. I was never clear why exactly PBS stations brought them in along with the likes of Masterpiece Theater and Mystery!, but somehow the BBC’s equivalent of Married with Children acquired a patina of respectability on this side of the pond. Even The Simpsons made jokes about it.

Which is not to say the shows were bad. If anything, the BBC’s production model likely made them better than comparable American shows. When a sketch about a “Modern Mother and Daughter” on Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French’s show took on a life of its own, Saunders could just throw together six half-hour episodes and get the BBC to shoot Absolutely Fabulous on its usual shoestring. Then, if people liked them and she felt the concept had six more episodes’ worth in it, they could make another series, and so on. The show’s entire 1990s run contained less material than a single American 22-episode season, so it never quite wore out its welcome. And now there’s a movie.

For the uninitiated, Ab Fab features two women on the periphery of the London fashion scene. Edina Monsoon (Saunders) is a PR agent whose only clients seem to be Lulu, Emma Bunton, and an unnamed boutique vodka. Her codependent friend Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) holds a position of no real responsibility at a fashion magazine. Together they smoke, drink, and carouse their way through every trend that comes along, which leaves responsibility in the hands of Edina’s daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha).

More than that gets complicated, since it was written with less consideration for coherence than for what seemed funny at the time. On the upside, you probably don’t need to know most of it to follow the movie, because it doesn’t care about the details of its own past the way a comic-book blockbuster might. The only character who seems a bit confusing is Edina’s personal assistant, Bubble (Jane Horrocks), but she’s pretty confused under the best of circumstances.

So as the movie opens, Edina has once again run out of money. It’s a situation she only seems to comprehend at some level of abstraction, “money” being one of those details she never cared to think too much about in the first place, and it only makes a crashing entrance into her conscious mind when she sees the wall-sized wine rack empty, rather than full of Bollinger.

No publishing house wants to pay an advance her memoir, and all looks bleak until Patsy learns that Kate Moss has fired her old PR. The pair try to chase her down at a party, only for Edina to knock her into the Thames, where she presumably drowns. Paparazzi-imposed house arrest while awaiting trial doesn’t suit Edina, so she and Patsy sneak out of the country to hide out in the French Riviera. Hijinx, naturally, throughout.

This is all utterly light and disposable, but the series always was to begin with. If you enjoyed the series, this is more of the same. It’s about as long as three episodes strung together, with higher production values and glitzier cameos, but otherwise exactly of a piece with what came before. Those who like this sort of thing, and all, with no real stylistic surprises. I did, though, learn something oddly fascinating at the screening I attended.

Watching the odd episodes when I was younger, I’d always identified with — and, if I’m honest, had a bit of a schoolboy crush on — Saffron. Though not presented as an ideal, she was at least a sensible counterweight to Patsy and Edina’s mad whims. I’d always read the series to say that the two central figures were terrible, and satirised the excesses of aging, self-important Boomers, with Saffy as the Gen-X child left to clean up their mess. After some digging into the background of the show, I remain convinced that this has always been Saunders’ intention.

But there is evidently an entirely different subculture of Absolutely Fabulous fans, who see it instead as a celebration of the wild and wacky adventures that Patsy and Edina go on before they’re brought down by buzzkill Saffron. An entire boisterous row of them filled in behind me, and proceeded to kibbutz and kick the seats throughout the movie. Every scene focused on Saffy’s attempts to save her mother from herself brought a chorus of “Oh my God she’s the worst” as soon as Sawalha appeared on screen.

To these fans, Ab Fab seems to be a gayer — though far less homoerotic — version of Entourage; a British version of the same dip into celebrity culture offered by the reality shows on Bravo. Pointing out the critical and satirical angle of the show would be like saying that The Real Housewives is far from unscripted. It’s an unwelcome intrusion of reality on the bubble of “reality”, which misses what they see as the point entirely. It’s a credit to Saunders’ writing that she can present satire for those who want it, while never disturbing the slumber of those who don’t.

Worth It: sure, if you like the series.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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