I’ll always remember my initial reaction the first time I watched Absolutely Fabulous (BBC, 1992-2012). Edina Monsoon (played by co-creator Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (played by former model and co-star Joanna Lumley) appeared to be the rudest, crudest and strangest women I ever saw on television. It was around 1998, I was about ten years old growing up in the U.S., and found it through some kind of VH1 marathon re-run special, binge-watching in one of its earliest forms. Watching Ab Fabas a ten-year old kid was also the first time I remember being upset and perplexed while watching a TV series. The program stayed in my memory, but it wasn’t until my late twenties that I understood being offended, appalled, and confused was exactly what Saunders intended for her project. When I re-visited Ab Fab 17 years later, I recognized my initial assessment was not wrong, but that this was what made the show so right.
From the first Absolutely Fabulous episode 1, series 1, “Fashion”: Edina contemplates sobriety, Patsy cannot even fathom it.
The episode that I remember most vividly is “Iso Tank” (Episode 4, Series 1, 1992), in which Edina adopts a Romanian orphan to infuriate her precocious yet sartorially challenged teenage daughter Saffron “Saffy” Monsoon (Julia Sawalha). In her failed adoption attempt, Eddy tries gain attention from anyone and everyone, while Saffy is constantly embarrassed. I could not understand why or how a mother could be so narcissistic, so selfish, and so very drunk. I do recall enjoying the physical slapstick-style humour of Eddy and Patsy, because it reminded me of Lucille Ball, my and everyone else’s favourite Nick at Nite star at the time.
From “Iso Tank”: Eddy considers adopting a Romanian baby.
Of course, my assessment as a kid was going to evolve. But my initial reception makes so much sense now: in the U.S., audiences are less likely to watch a series with “unlikeable” characters. American audiences even cheer on anti-heroes and anti-heroines – they are the unexpected protagonists – from Don Draper of Mad Men to Nancy Botwin of Weeds. Some comedies like Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunnyin Philadelphia have achieved in showing horrible people as protagonists, yet audiences still cherish them. As someone who grew up in the U.S., I also cherish my favourite TV characters, including Eddy and Patsy. But never as role models.
American narratives ultimately still strive for a Hollywood-influenced sense of redemption and closure at the end of a series run. We don’t know what happens to Tony Soprano as the last scene in the series fades to black, but we last see him with his family, content in a diner. Tony, played brilliantly by the late, great James Gandolfini, embodies the loveable gangster: he lied, cheated, and stole throughout The Sopranos eight-year run on HBO. We see this need for likeable protagonists best in American adaptations of British shows like The Office (BBC, 2001-2003; NBC, 2005-2013) Ricky Gervais’ David Brent in was rude, crude and totally insufferable, whereas Steve Carell’s Michael Scott was fatally flawed yet hopelessly endearing. I have briefly touched upon the transatlantic divide between the reception of sympathetic characters in an article on Girls. My co-author Conrad Ng and I also cite an apt article written by Sarah Hughes of The Independent who explains these differences in terms of gendered expectations as well as US/UK disparities.
This likeability component, however, is only secondary to what I believe my biggest discovery was upon watching Ab Fab again: the series is a complete mockery of the self-obsessed, consumer-driven, pleasure-seeking archetype of the contemporary woman in both the U.K. and U.S. We don’t cheer on Eddy and Patsy to get through the fashion show, trip to Morocco, or new business venture with Minnie Driver. Ab Fab makes fun, critiques and questions the fashion, PR lifestyle in a sharp contrast to a series like the oft-cherished and maligned Sex and the City, (HBO, 1998-2004) in which Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and company were ultimately portrayed as likeable, somehow relatable role models that young women in the U.S. sadly emulated. Although Ab Fab ‘s beginning predates Sex and the City’s by six years years, it somehow foreshadows the culture surrounding it and criticizes it ahead of time. All of the same tropes are evident in both series. They centre on middle-aged women working in fields focused around the intersection of art and commerce, consumerism and pleasure. They are single (divorced or never married). They live in major capital cities. They are uncertain of their futures. They are utterly terrified of getting old. They love to shop until they max their credit cards, drink until they black out, smoke until their lungs can’t take it anymore, diet until they reach new levels of eating disorder, pamper until their masseuse, facialist, or manicurist can’t take it any longer and cleanse out all the toxins just to alleviate the anxiety and existential dread.
Saunders may have not entirely foreshadowed the impact and popularity her series or Sex and the Citywould have, but her interviews suggest she was tapping into a very specific kind of woman, and experience, of the time and of the place: the PR professional in London in the early ‘90s. In a 2011 featurette that looks back on the series
Saunders explains the Ab Fab origin story:
In 1992 Dawn [French, her comedic partner and peer in her comedic genius] was having a break, but a nice man at the BBC [Jon Plowman, Producer, Absolutely Fabulous] let me have my own show!
And it was at this time that we were becoming very aware of PR. PR was into everything. And so there was fashion PR, there were launches, red carpets. Combine that with bad parenting, cruelty, alcohol and fags, and you’ve got a sitcom!
Ruby Wax (actress and script editor for Ab Fab) recalls that this PR woman needed to be made fun of, and brutally onscreen.
While this first part of Ab Fab two-parter focused on my personal re-discovery of the series, I would like for the next part to focus on methodological possibilities of examining Ab Fab.
Next time: methodological approaches to Ab Fab: From feminist TV criticism to taste culture to commodity fetishism.
Stefania Marghitu is a PhD student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts’ Division of Critical Studies. Her primary interests deal with critical and cultural studies of television, the showrunner and modes of authorship, feminist TV criticism and production studies. You can find her work published in The Spectator, Gender Forum, Flow TV, and the edited collection Refocus on Amy Heckerling (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming in 2016).