Whenever things get too real or she sees an opportunity to relapse into old patterns, Mae (Mae Martin) hears a high-pitched ringing in her ears like she’s been briefly concussed. Most times, she manages to blink it away. Other times, however, she finds herself drawn to the ringing, to that pang of recognition, like a moth to the flame she knows could burn her into dust.
This is the way it sometimes feels to watch “Feel Good,” Netflix’s new series from Canadian comic Martin and Joe Hampson. While very funny — despite my initially dire description, I promise! — the show is also unflinching as it tracks Mae trying not to lose herself while falling head over heels into a relationship with George (Charlotte Ritchie), with all the quick and giddy dizziness that implies. Mae, a Canadian standup comedian and addict living in London who’s based on Martin herself, is as smart as she is frustrating, flawed and upfront about it. We see some of her comedy — which, at one point, becomes its own kind of weapon that she inadvertently uses against herself — but for the most part, we see Mae stumbling from day to day, trying not to fall back into the kind of habits that once cratered her entire life. Though this first season of “Feel Good” runs only six episodes long, it becomes very intimate, very quickly.
Mae’s struggle with drug addiction and refusal to acknowledge its lasting power over her form a crucial throughline to the series (and keep her relationship with her standoffish mother, played by Lisa Kudrow, an everlasting question mark). But it’s her relationship with George that’s the spine, thanks to Martin and Ritchie’s chemistry and frank discussions about the kinds of relationship problems that TV rarely addresses, let alone gets right.
Before meeting Mae, George always thought of herself as straight. She never questions her feelings for Mae, but her fear of acknowledging what they might mean and what her friends and family might think lead her to keep Mae tucked away in her apartment like a secret — which, understandably, leads Mae to spiral hard into self-doubt. Mae’s also determined to keep the depth of her addiction from George, which slowly but surely drives a wedge between them. It’s not that they don’t love each other — they do, desperately — but that they don’t trust themselves to love the other right without burying some huge part of themselves first. George’s shame over her sexuality, and refusal to meaningfully face it, cause Mae to shrink herself in order to fit George’s needs, and downplay some of her own thorny feelings about gender and sexuality. Meanwhile, Mae’s shame over her addiction, and refusal to meaningfully face it, cause George to question Mae’s ability to stay upright, and wonder if she might just be another thing Mae can obsess over instead of drugs. Both have reasons for their insecurities; both fail to reckon with them; both hurt the other slowly, deeply, terribly. Over just six episodes, “Feel Good” tells the kind of complex relationship story that some shows spend seasons nailing down.
But again: “Feel Good,” as written by Martin and Hampson, is also very funny in a way that feels perfectly natural (i.e. not like it was ripped straight from one of Martin’s standup sets). George, Mae, and the well-meaning people around them are funny like regular people are sometimes funny, whether they mean to be or not. With enough warmth and humor to keep its heavier subject matter afloat, “Feel Good” feels lowkey, insightful and real in a way that so much of TV tries to be, but rarely achieves quite like this — and yes, it also can feel pretty damn good.
“Feel Good” premieres Thursday, March 19 on Netflix.