My Mad Fat Diary premiered on channel E4 in the UK in 2013 and finished its three-series run this past summer. The show originated from a collection of diaries of the teen years of a woman, Rae Earl, and the TV adaptation focuses on her struggle with body image issues and the time Rae spent in a mental health facility in Lincolnshire, England in the 1990s. After stumbling upon the show and watching the entire series on repeat as if it were a Blur playlist on my iTunes, I found myself more in tune with a decade I’d worshiped for so long, more so than I had watching any television actually created in the ‘90s. The music bests any Spotify ‘90s playlists around and wardrobe department doesn’t go for the “coolest” of the trends but sticks to what feels true to the characters and the time.
But why does this show need to be set in the ‘90s? It doesn’t. In fact, the books don’t even take place in the ‘90s, but in the ‘80s. This same story, the story of a girl trying to figure out how to love herself and accept that others do, too, could be told in any point in time. It isn’t like Mad Men or Manhattan, where the plot and characters necessarily hinge on the decade or historical events around which they are situated. Rae could fall in love to the soundtrack Arcade Fire or The Carpenters instead of Oasis. She could be wearing saddle shoes rather than Doc Martin’s. But the ‘90s were chosen and thus it is the ‘90s we experience. We are transported to a world and that is where we live as we watch. Isn’t that the point of nostalgia, to create an escape from the present so that we can relive the past, even if it is a past we never knew? Isn’t that also one of the points of television, to escape? If it is, My Mad Fat Diary is quite a good ticket to buy; I certainly enjoyed my stay.
The show introduces us to Rae on the day of her first therapy session since having left the hospital after months of treatment. Her day of freedom was Wednesday, July 10th, 1996. “Dear Diary,” she writes, “I’m sixteen, I weigh sixteen-and-a-half stone, and I live in Lincolnshire.” Her diary entry functions well as a nut graph; we instantly know what we are getting into. And for me, this was always what I wanted to get into, I just didn’t realize it.
When I was a teenager (during the mid-to late aughts), the shows I watched were about wealthy, beautiful kids -- Marissa Cooper, Blair Waldorf, insert-any-name-from-Pretty-Little-Liars-here -- who lived in wealthy, beautifully basic places -- Orange County, the Upper East Side, fictional-suburban-Pennsylvania. Not so on MMFD. Rae, played spectacularly by Sharon Rooney, is a bit of a mess; at times, even in the first scene, her aggressive nature and supreme eye-rolling capabilities are grating but in the way your best friend can be without making you love them any less, or at least, not by much. After leaving the hospital, Rae falls in with what to her, and to me, seems like the coolest group of her peers around. They don’t drive fancy cars and have parties in flats with sweeping city views. They have food fights at the local chip shop and smash down pints at the pub where they plug in the number for “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys to play from the jukebox. The decade is present in the music, the clothes, the pop-culture references; it feels as alive as the characters.
It is difficult not to instantly fall in love with this gang. Chloe, Rae’s childhood best friend and her way into the scene, is the “pretty one,” (why does every fictional friend group always seem to have a “pretty one?”) but not in an unbelievable way; she is the kind of pretty girl that would certainly be popular in high school in rural England but who doesn’t look like she has sat in makeup and hair for two hours getting contoured and tweezed. Izzy, the sweet, bubbly redhead, is just the kind of girl Rae needs to be around -- someone who radiates positivity. In the first episode, Rae breaks down the male members of the group by their level on the “slice” scale: Chop comes in at “rating slice” (I think that is a good thing?); Finn is an “epic slice, but he massively knows it”; Archie is the “ultimate slice -- half geek, half rock-god, so hot he’d make a priest kick a hole in a stained glass window.”
It’s pretty obvious from the first episode that the relationship that girls on Tumblr will be shipping, though, is the one between Rae and Finn. Played by Nico Mirallegro, Finn, the British equivalent to Jordan Catalano and owner of the best British eyebrows after Cara Delevingne, is impossible not to pine for. He’s a bit dumb, but in the endearing-not-frustrating way, and sensitive, too -- you can see it in the way he looks at Rae from the start, like he knows he needs to worry about her before he knows what he needs to be worrying about. There isn’t a character on the show that isn’t likable and genuine; there are not really any cliched mean girls and only a couple of appearances by wimpy teen bullies. Those who do pop up, mostly relegated to series two, are not mean for mean’s sake; as Finn soothingly reminds Rae, “Everyone has to struggle and fight. They just haven’t realized it yet.” Rae’s ultimate villain appears in the form of a glowing pantry in her mother’s house; when it glows, tempting Rae towards binging and subsequently more self-harm, it is a reminder that sometimes the enemies that are hardest to overcome live in the mind.
Luckily MMFD lets us into Rae’s mind, both through voiceover narration in the form of her diary entries and in writing that appears on the screen, sometimes to make lists, sometimes to write “twat” next to the faces of her bullies, sometimes to draw male genitalia over a piece of beef jerky that she is unwrapping. Rae has a voice that is so distinct, so owned by her that it is hard to believe there is a real life Rae Earl walking around that probably doesn’t say things like “I’d shag him until there was nothing left. Just a pair of glasses and a damp patch.” (If the real Rae Earl does say things like this, I love the show all the more.) The writing and direction are what saves MMFD from being another bad teen dramedy. There is plenty of opportunity to veer into the maudlin, to become an episode of Degrassi or another show the school health teacher would play in class to remind us that we all have our “issues.” One of the main characters is a therapist, for god’s sake. Yet it never becomes preachy, never blurs the line between television show and television PSA.
We watch as Rae and her friends struggle to figure out what it means to be cool, what it means to be a good friend, daughter, girlfriend, human. There might be a take away from some of the lessons the gang learns. Rae’s scenes with her therapist, Kester, are often just as therapeutic for the audience as they are for our main character. (Kester is played by Ian Hart aka the Hogwarts professor who had Voldemort wrapped up in his purple turban and Hart somehow pulls off not making you think about that fact every time he is on screen.) When Rae tells Kester that he is always telling her she needs to love herself but he never tells her how, it feels like an attack that should be made on teen TV show writers, too. Does anyone actually believe that all it takes to get over body image problems is for a cute boy or girl or two to tell you that you are beautiful? Because I certainly didn’t buy it when they tried to sell it on Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars. Chalk it up to bad acting, bad casting, or bad writing, but there doesn’t feel to be anything sincere about these young women being labelled as having a mental illness such as an eating disorder and then having it all wrapped up in a couple-episode-if-that arc.
Is it enough to have representation of mentally ill teenagers on television if they aren’t fleshed out and completely understood? After watching My Mad Fat Diary, it becomes clear that it most certainly is not enough. By the end of the third series we aren’t left with a Rae that is perfect or “fixed,” but we have a Rae who has made progress. And that feels right because that feels real. Often we are too quick to give in to the overnight transformations teen characters undergo, both physically and mentally, and allow for the genre of “teen drama” to allow us to forgive these ills. People aren’t that simple, not even teenagers. My Mad Fat Diary lets its teenage subjects be stubborn and irrational and kind of dicks sometimes, and it doesn’t lose its audience for it. In my case, it kept a viewer anxiously waiting for the next episode to see if any meaningful change could happen when given the proper time.