There is no soft landing into the series Flack. No introductions. No helpfully informative conversations. No soft intro music. Nope. It just—BAM!—drops you directly into the shit.
In the opening scene, as the camera moves through a hotel room strewn with the leftovers of a wild night, we hear what sounds like a man and a woman engaged in some vigorous sex. But we soon see what’s really happening: a well-dressed woman is sitting astride an unconscious naked man while performing vigorous CPR on his chest. Another naked man, the moaning one, paces anxiously while he yells that they “weren’t doing anything gay” and that if this gets out his football career will be ruined. The woman, gesturing vaguely toward the pacing man’s penis, snaps at him to “roll that thing up. You’re flapping it really close to my face.” In short order she wakes up the passed out man, calmly pays him off to keep his mouth shut, bustles her now clothed client out the door, stops briefly to snort a line of leftover cocaine off the countertop, and finally leaves the room with a sarcastic finger wave. At this point I feel like you’re probably either running for the exits or you’re totally hooked. I was hooked.
Flack is the story of Robyn (Anna Paquin), an extremely talented American PR rep who works at a London-based firm that represents high-end clients like footballers, celebrity chefs, and pop stars, who are constantly getting themselves into sticky situations. Robyn, with rapid fire ideas and a seemingly endless number of favors to call in, manages to work out solutions that are often morally and legally questionable. (I find it endlessly fascinating to watch the messy machinations that operate behind-the-scenes to keep the sleek and glossy public face of celebrity moving.) She works alongside Eve (Lydia Wilson), an incredibly snobby woman with blunt cut bangs that will undoubtedly convince any number of viewers that they too could rock that hair. (Most will, of course, be sadly mistaken and, as a result, will have to suffer through months of awkward bangs.) Eve takes one look at the newly arrived (and terrified) intern and says dismissively that she “looks like she’s been kidnapped by a murderer and dressed in his mother’s clothes.” But, for all Eve’s snarky one-liners and insistence that she’s dead inside and doesn’t even have tear ducts, it’s clear that she is deeply devoted to Robyn and their work friendship.
The intern, Melody (Rebecca Benson), is a young Scottish woman who is so naive and eager to please that it feels like people are kicking a puppy every time they insult her, which they do almost constantly. She endlessly screws things up as she learns just how underhanded and conniving she’ll need to be to succeed in the field.
And then there is Caroline (Sophie Okonedo), their abso-fucking-lutely terrifying, intimidating, and glorious boss. Caroline rarely raises her voice above what I consider “sociopathic serial killer calm.” When she deems a meeting over, she looks away and simply says, with a flick of her hand, “Go,” and everyone scatters as if they are flies and she’s the swatter. She compliments Robyn on her skin before adding, “I’d kill for your skin. I mean, literally. I would kill you and peel it off if I could.” Seriously, her delivery makes Hannibal Lecter seem like a pussycat by comparison. Her expectations of her employees leave little room for fussy things like sleep, outside relationships, mistakes, emotions, morals, or ethics. Who needs any of those? At one point she tells Robyn, “I don’t care if you lie or send innocent people to jail or go around kicking away the crutches of Polio-ridden children as long as you’re in control.” I definitely don’t want her as my boss, but she’s endlessly fascinating and entertaining to watch, especially when she says things like, “Christ, it’s like being slowly stung to death by incompetent wasps.” I’ll be stealing that line, thank you very much.
Robyn herself is a deeply flawed anti-heroine whose conscience peeps through only now and then. I dearly, dearly loved a moment early on when the PR firm gets wind of a woman trying to sell her story of sex with a serially philandering chef. Robyn is assigned the task of bailing him out of the mess. And, while she’s trying to concoct a plan, he goes on some self-pitying rant about how hard it is for men with wandering penises (penii?) these days, and wonders why women complain about being hit on or used for sex when he doesn’t. (I’m paraphrasing.) Robyn responds in an ice cold tone that maybe it’s because “you haven’t been told since you were eleven that every male you encounter has the potential to rape and murder you. Followed by a life of pre-sexualization, cat-calling and slut-shaming that fills you with so much guilt and fear…So every time there’s an inappropriate comment or hand on your thigh, you swallow it, until one day the world says, ‘Hey, actually maybe all that crap isn’t your fault.’ And the relief is so great that shit just pours out of you like a tsunami.” And then she goes about her job of burying the woman’s story about the affair, convincing his wife to stay with him, and saving his reputation so he can keep selling cookbooks and schtupping random women. You can see why a contradiction like that might take a toll on her soul. And, honestly, I couldn’t stop watching the way she’s a genius for spinning people out of sticky situations, and for the heartbreaking way that all that spin eats aways at her and feeds her inner demons. It’s easy to wonder if there is any situation that Robyn is morally opposed to fixing, but there are moments when she is pushed beyond her limit and frantically tries to find an escape hatch in her own well-wrought plan. The relief I felt during the one episode where she finds a way to take revenge on a client who refuses to show remorse for his horrific acts was palpable.
Of course, her work spills over into her private life. She’s endlessly being interrupted by phone calls she can’t miss or emergencies that require her to skip out of dinners, dates, and more. Also, Robyn can’t stop managing the people in her life. She’s got a drawer full of Narcotics Anonymous 24-hour sober chips, but no lasting sobriety. (I sometimes felt like her cocaine habit was treated as too much of a joke—though I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt that this was intentional. We’ll see what Season 2 brings.) She’s always trying to play both sides of the coin, telling people what they want to hear but also making sure there’s a backup plan in place. She’s constantly poking at those who love her, looking for weaknesses in their devotion to her, looking for a way to make them despise her so that she can prove her belief that she’s unlovable. She and her sister (Genevieve Angelson), who is married with two children and coping with her own guilt and loss, moved to London years ago to put distance between themselves and their mentally ill mother. It’s only been a year since their mother died by suicide, and both sisters are still trying to come to terms with the complicated grief.
We really don’t see Robyn’s clients living with the consequences of how she fixes their problems, but we see her living with it. We see her stuck between wanting to love and be loved and feeling dead inside and being terrified of stopping. We see how her commitment to her work and her colleagues both gives her life meaning and destroys it. In the first episode, after the night of saving the football player, snorting coke, getting drunk by herself, and sleeping clothed on her sister’s couch, we watch her put herself back together. She covers up the lack of sleep, the alcohol oozing from her pores, the heavy weight of sadness. When she walks into the office building, she appears fresh and ready for the world. She smiles at everyone she passes, wishing them good morning, but, once the elevator doors slide shut, her face sags under the weight of her sorrow and exhaustion.
I found Flack to be darkly funny, cynical, painful, and gratifying to watch. Another reviewer said that we enjoy watching messy people like Robyn because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Respectfully, they’re wrong. I think shows like this one allow women to be complex, horrible, and captivating in ways that are usually reserved for male anti-heroes, and that feels relatable and necessary. (I’m not even going to bother giving you examples of male anti-heroes here because there are so many.) Women are not just strong or feminist or feminine or mothers or childless. It’s more complicated than the roles (both real and imagined) we get shoved into. Robyn is unapologetically striving to be the best at her job, which, for a woman, often leaves little room for anything else. (Though I also really want her to take a nap because, damn, she must be so sleep deprived.) Also, it is entirely gratifying to watch someone do something they’re extremely good at. Even if that thing requires time sharing their soul with the devil.
Of course, it’s entirely possible I’m just spinning myself some epic bullshit because I enjoyed a show about people being absolutely horrible to other people! Watch it and let me know what you think.