There’s a familiar, acrid aftertaste to “Flack,” Pop’s new drama about the controlled chaos of the publicity industry. The grim behind-the-scenes machinations of the glossy entertainment industry have always been one of TV’s favorite subjects, as are the people tasked with pulling the strings without anyone ever realizing. Over just six episodes, the show manages to cover everything from serial harassers, to closeted athletes, to lazy comedians embracing transphobia rather than actual punchlines.
It also centers characters with deliberately jagged edges — the kind of people who flirt with self-improvement before spiraling into a self-loathing that they insist is inevitable. These so-called “antiheroes” have traditionally been grizzled men, but “Flack” is the latest show to let women assume the role, most particularly with Robin (executive producer Anna Paquin), an ace publicist whose mother’s suicide and addiction issues have hollowed her out. In this way, creator Oliver Lansley deliberately levels the playing field by allowing the female characters to be just as messy and mean and deeply flawed as any man onscreen — if not far more. (A rare exception goes to a lascivious star played to slimy perfection by Bradley Whitford.)
It’s a decent enough goal, even if it’s been achieved enough at this point to lose some of its initial novelty. But “Flack” is often too blunt to be as interesting as it palpably wants to be, burying any shred of nuance by underlining its themes in red marker to make sure you can’t miss them.
The series follows Robin, her best friend and partner in crime Eve (Lydia Wilson), and their wide-eyed intern Melody (Rebecca Benson) as they try to keep a lid on their clients’ darkest shames and ambitions. Encouraged (and scared) by their imperious boss Caroline (Sophie Okonedo), the trio fights their moral centers to find creative ways of making sure their clients come out looking the best, no matter what the cost.
Lansley feeds them scene after scene of acidic banter that sometimes crackles off the screen as intended, but other times stumbles over its attempts to be shocking, especially as delivered by women. (Also: show me a human woman who claims to use the phrase “diddle box” to refer to masturbation and I will show you a liar.) Nonetheless, each actor takes on the challenge of fleshing her character out beyond a logline with admirable verve; Wilson is particularly sharp, giving just enough of a peek behind Eve’s steely exterior to confirm that yes, there is indeed a human behind the ruthless barbs and impeccable haircut.
But for as good as the actors are, they can’t hide the fact that “Flack” isn’t sure what to do with anyone who isn’t Robin. Everyone else stems from her, and the show never quite shows how or why anyone else ticks outside their proximity to her. Eve is a bitch and Melody is a naif because they have to balance Robin out; we never find out anything else about them to differentiate them beyond these qualifiers. Caroline never reveals a single other gear other than “terrifying”; Okonedo plays it with a beautiful, quiet intensity, but the show doesn’t seem interested in exploring why Caroline became such a monster when it could just show us that she is one over and over. Robin also has an earnest, long-suffering boyfriend (Arinzé Kene) for seemingly no other reason than she has to make someone suffer in front of our very eyes for us to believe how broken she truly is.
The closest “Flack” gets to finding something genuinely new to say is with the relationship between Robin and her younger sister Ruth (the ever reliable Genevieve Angelson). Robin’s struggle to out-run her mother’s tainted legacy while Ruth tries to just “have a boring life” with her family are incompatible on the face of it, but their love for each other runs deep, and both Paquin and Angelson are adept at pulling that out of their every interaction. Their family drama might not be some salacious Hollywood disaster zone, but as Robin keeps trying to tell herself over and over again, it’s far more compelling than “Flack” gives it credit for.