Fairy Godmothers for Terrible People

Some thoughts on Flack, and the characters we seem to ask for

Most of celebrity culture is manufactured by publicists who are relentless in their pursuit of crafting and recrafting their clients lives and reputations. And so Flack, a new Amazon Prime TV series starring Anna Paquin, Sophie Okonedo, and Genevieve Angelson offers a glimpse into that world, one where people with an astonishing capacity for deception and cynicism thrive.

Flack is a wonderful show—acerbic writing, held together by moments of tenderness at unexpected times. In each episode, there is a client with a conflict demanding immediate, creative resolution—a healthy lifestyle influencer caught getting plastic surgery, a footballer who has to pretend to be straight for the sake of his career, a famous older actor with a criminal penchant for young girls. Robyn (Paquin), the show’s lead, is also grappling with her own conflicts—a drug addiction, a penchant for self destruction, and an adoring boyfriend with whom she is trying to start a family while continuing to take birth control.

Robyn and her sister Ruth (Angelson), have a layered, strong relationship that is, in many ways, the most pivotal relationship in the show. We also meet Ruth’s coworkers—Eve, who prefers to cut her way through the world with a sharp tongue and hard outer shell, Melody, an intern who tries to become the kind of woman who can succeed in PR while preserving a version of her best self, and their boss Caroline (Okonedo), ruthlessly good at her job and powerful and unyielding.

The men in the show are interesting enough. Most of them are affable and charming, perhaps a little too perfectly imperfect, but not offensively so. Robyn’s partner Sam has a seemingly limitless tolerance for his girlfriend’s bad behavior and as the first season unravels, it defies credulity that he would stay in such a one-sided relationship when we never see why he thinks she is worth his patience and affection.

Robyn’s character is familiar, perhaps too familiar. She is an antihero, relatable in how deeply flawed she is. A trainwreck that keeps on wrecking itself as you fervently hope it will all stop. It’s very nihilistic, watching Robyn systematically destroy her very good life and her very strong relationships that survive despite her best efforts until they don’t. She and her sister have a deceased mother who, it is implied across the first season’s six episodes, was challenging, the kind of mother whose daughters moved across the ocean to get away from. The mother, we’re supposed to believe, is the reason why Robyn is the way she is. Because, we want to understand such things. We want to believe people who do bad things, who treat others and themselves badly, have a reason for their behavior. There is something so alluring about being able to identify a cause and an effect. It gives us a sense of closure, completeness.

Antiheroes or unlikable protagonists are a hallmark of prestige television and they are, more often than not, men—Walter White, Don Draper, Tony Soprano, most of the dudes on The Wire. They surrender to their id, unapologetically. They make bad decisions and do terrible things and still, we like them, we root for them, we encourage them to never, ever change. It can be satisfying because the more civilized among us, follow the rules. We are good girls and boys. We do what we’re told and what is expected of us. We may be seething in resentment about being good, but we walk that line.

One of the reasons reality television has thrived for so long is because the worst (best) of it features people living fairly disastrous lives. We watch them be messy and melodramatic and petty and mean. We judge them for behaving badly or we envy them for living without a filter, for saying and doing whatever they want, with little regard for the consequences. My wife, Debbie, does not enjoy most reality television. She has no tolerance for the cruelty and vapidity. Witnessing her discomfort while she is gamely watching The Real Housewives of Wherever or Selling Sunset or whatever trash I’m obsessed with on any given day, has forced me to reconsider why I enjoy these shows. Why do I revel in seeing two women with bad hair extensions throwing expensive champagne at each other? What is my damage?

I’ve also been thinking about how the four very long years of the Trump presidency exhausted my ability to tolerate senseless cruelty because from one day to the next, the administration wielded their unfathomable power over the most vulnerable people, and they did so gleefully. After watching the news, my capacity for seeing senseless cruelty anywhere else was greatly diminished. It forced me to examine why I had such a capacity in the first place. I have not yet come to any grand conclusions, but I do know I am yearning for something different from my entertainment.

As I watched Flack, which I binged in two days, I didn’t want the show to end. The flacks in the show were like fairy godmothers for terrible, selfish people. It was great television. And I’ve been thinking about the show ever since, the final moments, where Robyn must contend with a series of very bad decisions. I was, I think, supposed to pity her and I suppose I did. But I also thought about how avoidable it all was, how she could have been better and probably more interesting without being a prototypical good girl. As her character stands, she is nothing more than the sum of her failings. Given the strength of the show’s writing, her character could have been compelling without the cruelty and self-destruction. She could have been something beyond the constraints of hero or anti-hero. But given what we seem to crave as audience, the show’s creator had little incentive for making that choice.