Content note: Beware of spoilers for season 1.
“My Mad Fat Diary” is a show about my life.
Well, not exactly. My life has been different, in some significant ways. Like, for example, I was never hospitalized as a teenager. Also, I grew up in south Florida, a radically different environment from MMFD’s Lincolnshire, which I actually had to look up on a map, although even seeing it on a map didn’t really tell me anything as I know little about English counties aside from how fascinating it is that the UK is so small in terms of landmass, and yet people across it speak in so many distinct accents and with so many bizarrely specific cultural differences?
I digress. "My Mad Fat Diary" is, rather, a show about my interior, emotional life at a certain point in the past, as it is likely about the interior emotional life of many people of many ages and many appearances and essentially anyone who has ever been a teenager.
The BAFTA-nominated “My Mad Fat Diary” is a product of our British cousins, which means many of you have not seen it, or even heard of it -- because it has never aired on American television, nor is it available on any of the US streaming sites like Netflix or Hulu. Full episodes can be found on YouTube, which I am pointedly not linking directly to as I am uncertain of how legal they are and frankly I’d like them to continue to be available there.
Longtime readers know I have a longstanding and semi-obsessive fixation with British television. There are a few reasons for this, and it’s not just simple anglophila: the budgets are smaller, but I think the writing is better, and takes more risks, much of the time. The series (or seasons, in US-speak) are shorter, and I know this makes me a weirdo but I kinda like a story that goes for six episodes and is done. Also, it all tends to be a little edgier -- the stories, the situations, even the language tends to be sharper, darker, bleaker, a little more authentic, a little more mortifying.
For close on a year now, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that “My Mad Fat Diary” is one of the bravest and most real things I’ve ever seen on television, and that it would NEVER get made in the US. But it turns out I’m wrong about that, because MTV has just commissioned a pilot for an American version of the series, going so far as to bring the writer of the original UK version -- Tom Bidwell -- to the US to work on it this summer.
Truth be told, I am concerned. MTV’s track record on these things is not great -- look what happened to the American version of “Skins.” “Skins” was a compelling British series about a complicated ensemble cast of teenagers; you can still catch the UK version on Netflix, but don’t yell at me if you wind up spending a whole weekend watching it.
MTV’s American “Skins” redux likewise involved the UK series creators, but was nevertheless a small disaster. Even in a toned-down version, American audiences just COULDN’T with the sex and the sex and the… sex, and accusations of child pornography (owing to some of the actors being under 18) led to a loss of advertiser support and the show was canned, because maaaan we are apparently all still Puritans on some level.
But my primary concern is that this is not a series that needs to be remade. Like “Skins,” “My Mad Fat Diary” is bound to its time and place in a way that would be difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce in the US, and in a sense I think that involving the original series writer makes all of this worse. What’s needed is someone familiar with the tone and intent of the original, but who can speak to a similar experience in American culture (and I’m not saying this because I want to write it myself, although, uh, if you want you can call me and we’ll talk, MTV ::phone hand signal::).
MMFD is fine just the way it is, and I don’t understand why the urge is always to remake a series rather than to air the original in the US. Are Americans as a population really so dull-witted and provincial that they would refuse to watch long enough to figure out a Lincolnshire accent, and that in the UK “college” is roughly analogous to the second two years of high school?
Actually, don’t answer that, I don’t want to know. Instead, here are four things MMFD gets so beautifully right that I don’t think a remake could ever improve on the original.
1. The 90s
“My Mad Fat Diary” is set in 1996, and its protagonist Rae Earl is sixteen. I was nineteen in that year, but it’s all close enough that there hasn’t been a single song played on this series that I haven’t known the lyrics to, because serendipitously, it was roundabout 1994-95 that my teenage anglophilia found its root (in Blur, to be precise).
It would be easy to go overboard on the nostalgia in such a setting -- tempting, even, considering that the 90s are enjoying a revival as of late. But one of my favorite things about MMFD is that it doesn’t make its time period into a circus of unnecessary references. It could be that I am old enough that it doesn’t seem that distant to me, but a lot of the time this story feels timeless -- it could have happened twenty years ago, or it could be happening now.
The wardrobe is on point, though. Everything Rae wears is stuff that could have come from my closet at the time.
2. Teenage Body Horror
Rae is a fat girl. It’s right there in the title. She’s specifically a fat girl with a history of binge eating -- which we see a bit of in the early episodes -- but who is doing her best to stay in recovery. Rae’s lack of bingeing does not result in magical weight loss, rather her food issues are portrayed as an independent factor she has to manage in her life on an ongoing basis, which is far more realistic than the comforting popular narrative of the girl who permanently overcomes her eating disorder and is suddenly “normal.”
But even though “fat” is indeed right there in the title, Rae’s body worries are far from unique to her size, and the truth is that most of the insecurities she puts down to being fat are fairly universal among teenagers.
When Rae has a “megaperiod” following months of not menstruating, and soaks through her skirt in public, it’s gross and hilarious and relatable teenage body horror, an unblinking look at how it is to live in a body that is completely unpredictable. I mean, not only does she literally leak a giant red stain down the back of her skirt, she then has to walk down a public street that way. (Why she doesn’t take off her jacket and tie it around her waist is beyond me, though -- isn’t that what everybody did in these situations?)
At the same time, when Rae can overcome her insecurities and just be herself, she’s so likeable it makes me want to scream. (In fact, I do a lot of screaming while watching this show. There are So Many Emotions.) Initially, Rae’s terror of being seen in a swimsuit seems to be entirely weight-related, although it turns out she also has large self-injury scars on her legs. When this is revealed at a pool party, instead of dying of embarrassment as she might have expected, Rae shrugs it off and makes a joke, and as a result her friends -- who like her because of who she is, and who are a thousand times less worried about her body than Rae thinks they are -- don’t seem to give it a second thought.
3. Longtime Girl Friendships
Rae and Chloe have known each other since they were tiny, and as a result they have all the associated baggage that comes with longtime friendship. Rae has always felt inferior to the conventionally pretty and slender Chloe, but her insecurities on this point don’t always have her retiring to the shadows. Sometimes they bring out her competitive side, which is a nice change from the typical portrayal of the cute girl’s fat friend who always steps back to wallow in her own self-loathing.
Their relationship is deliciously complicated, as teenage relationships between girls often are. When Rae and Chloe decide to go after the same boy, Rae doesn’t back down, but uses Chloe’s known weaknesses (for example, her lack of knowledge of music) against her. Chloe is not above telling Rae point blank that boys just won’t date fat girls, and that’s how it is. But then when Rae has a date that could ostensibly end in sex (and couldn’t ANY date ostensibly end in sex when you’re 16, even if you’d never had sex before, wasn’t that part of the hopefulness and terror of teenage life?) and Chloe pressures her into a “makeover,” Rae submits, even though she ostensibly got the date by looking as she usually does, and even though Chloe’s efforts leave Rae uncomfortable and unsure.
The pair of them are so trapped inside their own heads and insecurities that misunderstandings and hurt feelings are inevitable. At one point, Chloe tearfully confides to Rae about how hard it is to walk into a room and have everyone stare at you, a frustrated Rae tells her, “You’re a really shit friend,” maybe because she thinks Chloe should be able to imagine that Rae feels the same way sometimes -- only not because she’s pretty, but because she’s fat.
In one episode, Rae passes up a ticket to a massive concert to go with Chloe to get a medical abortion. Later, in Chloe’s bedroom, the two begin to bond again, and Rae starts to tell Chloe her most shameful secret, about being hospitalized after an episode of extreme self-injury -- Chloe, like everyone, thinks Rae was in France during those missing months just before the series begins.
But just as Rae opens up, the phone rings, and Chloe abruptly ditches Rae for her ex-boyfriend, who wants to “talk.” It would be easy to put Chloe down as a selfish and horrible villain for this, but the beauty of these characters is that even when they are terrible, they are sympathetic, and when an abandoned Rae starts to crumble, I can’t help but feel sick for her, but also for the insecure and approval-seeking Chloe, who will run back to a dude who’s treated her so poorly.
4. SEX SEX SEEEEEXXXXXXXXXX
This was the undoing of the American "Skins," mind. Teenage brains are filthy. I mean SO filthy. I think I had forgotten how sex-obsessed we all were at that age. Even before we’d had sex; ESPECIALLY before we’d had sex. Rae’s diary entries and daydreams are rife with salacious drawings and language, her internal monologue a constant barrage of smutty longings.
This flavor of candid sex-hounding is a little unexpected coming from a teenage girl, as teenage girls are generally depicted (in US television, at least) as the submissive recipients of sexual attention from teenage boys and men, and not as active participants, much less as aggressors. Rae and Chloe are both as interested in sex as any of the boys are -- sometimes moreso, it seems -- but rather than making a joke of their sex obsession or calling them sluts, their curiosity and interest is portrayed as natural and normal and human, which is actually what it is.
Still, while Rae talks a big game, she’s terrified of the act itself, which is again such a real thing about being a teenager that it almost hurts to watch. Early on in the first series, Rae develops a crush on the attractive Archie, who seems to return her feelings, a fact that both thrills and baffles Rae. The two spend time together and even make out at one point, but Archie’s weird hot-and-cold attitude is only explained when Rae discovers he’s actually gay.
And when she does, she says to him, "I know that I'm ugly, and I know that boys don't like me, so why did you let me think that you did?" There's genuinely no self pity about it. Rae's not fishing for compliments, not looking for Archie to reassure her. She is simply certain that these things are true, and is angry at Archie for trying to convince her otherwise, rather than allowing her to just accept that she’s doomed to be Alone Forever with her obscene drawings and her filthy mind -- a fear pretty much every teenager, no matter what they look like, has entertained at one point or another.
There are honestly so many things that are fantastic about this show, from Rae’s fraught relationship with her mother, to how it captures that precious need to belong, to the heretofore unknown Sharon Rooney’s brilliance in the role of Rae Earl. Rooney somehow renders this character into a person you can’t help liking and wanting to root for, but also someone whose bad decisions and insecurities drive you insane in the way that only ridiculous teenagers can do. (I mean, for real, there are moments in the second season where I caught myself clawing at the screen because I wanted to shake her SO HARD, GIRL, JUST STOP.)
So while I will follow the evolution of the MTV version with interest, my expectations are not high. Apparently, their vision is to remake "My Mad Fat Diary" as a half-hour comedy series, which already has me recoiling a bit, because I don't want Rae to turn into a punchline, and it's the gut-punching dramatic moments that make this series truly brilliant.
I’m hoping to be wrong, as what could be better than TWO brilliant incarnations of this show, but even if I’m right -- hey, at least we’ll always have Lincolnshire.