Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
An opening scene of a failed suicide attempt immediately sets the tone in Flowers, the new six-episode British comedy-drama airing on Seeso.
Maurice Flowers (Julian Barratt), an illustrator of grotesque-looking children’s books, awakes from his desk with a troubled look on his face. We watch as he trudges out of the house and into the garden; via a series of fast cutting close-ups, we see he is holding a step ladder and, worryingly, a noose. Moments later we watch him climb up the ladder, tie the rope to a tree trunk, wrap the noose around his neck, and jump… only to fall flat on the ground as the rope breaks. “For fuck’s sake,” is his resigned, pitiful cry.
A botched hanging is something of a staple of pitch black comedies. Few things are as horrific or taboo as suicide, and so to appropriate the act into comedy and depict it as potentially humorous is still almost guaranteed to catch the audience off guard. Cult classic film Harold and Maude, for instance, opens with an elaborate hanging attempt from the title character Harold, which becomes all the more shocking when his mother reacts totally unmoved upon finding him swinging there. It’s only later we discover that the ‘suicide’ was one of many faked by Harold.
At the same time, there’s a level of absurd humor to be found in characters so hopeless and ridiculous that they are unable even to kill themselves successfully. That’s the case at the start of one episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where Frank is left stranded in mid-air as his neck proves too thick for the rope to cut off his breathing.
This opening scene of Flowers is similar in that it is both shocking and catches us by surprise, and in that Maurice evidently fits under the loser-protagonist label. But what sets the scene apart, and prepares us for how the show is to develop over its next few episodes, is the pathos granted to his character. The first glimpse of him we see on screen is an extreme close-up of his face (in one of many stark and impressively cinematic shots), which Barratt infuses with an expression so pained and authentic that it can’t help but be emotionally affective.
Throughout the opening three episodes, the show attempts to strike a fine balancing act between black humor and touching emotional content – and is generally more successful at executing the latter. After the failed suicide, Maurice spends the next few episodes trying to keep the attempt a secret from the rest of his family. The situation does breed some laughs – when he resorts to telling his visiting friend’s child that he will be cursed should he tell anyone about the hangman’s rope he found, for instance – but the arc is at its most engaging when depicting the deep-rooted feelings of guilt he feels about the incident, and his internal conflict over whether or not he ought to come clean.
The same applies to the other main characters. When the rest of the family are all first introduced in a swift montage, they’re presented as stock comedy characters, often with a gimmick to heighten their absurdity. There’s the ditzy and eager-to-please mother Deborah (played with typical gusto by Olivia Colman); the obnoxious and nerdy adult son Donald (Daniel Rigby), who invents obscure household objects; and his twin sister Amy (Sophia Di Martino), a moody and artsy music lover.
None are particularly interesting at first, but they do come to life when allowed to transcend their broad archetypes. A scene in the third episode in which Amy comes out to Maurice as gay, for example, is genuinely touching, and highlights the potential for these characters to grow into rounded personalities bound together by the peculiar dynamics of their family.
Beyond the nuclear family, the writers take little time in expanding the show’s rural village world by including a notably large cast of supporting characters. We’re introduced to most in the opening episode as Deborah haplessly sets about finding people to attend her and Maurice’s anniversary party, having to settle for a motley crew of oddballs and undesirables. It’s here where some of the show’s flaws are underlined – specifically that much of the humor often falls flat, especially when there isn’t any substantial emotional content to back it up.
But the groundwork has been laid for a promising, distinctly dark comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family, that over time these more crude minor characters could successfully orbit around. If it can retain the droll melancholy of the opening hanging sequence whilst continuing to develop its many characters, Flowers will be a show worth keeping an eye on.
The jokes don’t always land, but a commitment to dark humor and well-handled emotional content make Flowers an unusually intriguing watch.