One of the best things about Netflix is their willingness to open up their “Endless Scroll” to shows that we might have missed when they were originally broadcast, especially the weirder British shows that come and go with alarming frequency on television in the UK and other countries.
One such show that I finally caught up with is the Channel Four comedy Flowers, which originally premiered in the UK in 2016. It was first bought for the US by Comcast and debuted on NBCUniversal’s failed comedy streaming service Seeso, which shut down in 2017 before Netflix acquired the streaming rights.
Only a British sitcom would begin with a man failing to hang himself. That should tell you immediately if this is your cup of poisoned tea.
That man is Maurice Flowers (Julian Barratt), a depressed and unhappy author of a popular children’s book series featuring characters called The Grubbs. Maurice lives in a crumbling country cottage with his wife Deborah and his grown twin children, Amy and Don. Shun, the Japanese illustrator of his books, lives in a shed in the garden – while Maurice’s senile mother Hattie lives upstairs… and she’s not long for this world.
The Flowers are a family trapped in a deep well of dysfunction. Maurice is depressed to the point of suicidal ideation. His wife Deborah (Olivia Colman) tries to deny and hide her deep unhappiness with a brittle façade of forced cheeriness on the verge of falling apart. The Flowers twins are emotionally stunted adults still living in their parents’ house. Sophia Di Martino’s Amy looks like a young, depressed Kate Bush.
I wonder if she was cast because she looks like a young Kate Bush…?
Amy is a depressed shut-in who creates dark, Gothic art pieces and music. Her twin brother Don is a self-deluding would-be inventor who mainly glues different devices together to create ridiculous and useless new devices. Daniel Rigby plays Don like a man who never grew up beyond the mental age of 13, trapped in a juvenile fantasy of playing “boy inventor.”
Farce ensues when: Maurice tries to hide his suicide attempt from Deborah; his mother winds up on her last legs as a consequence; Deborah is wooed by Barry, a widowed builder who has fallen in love with her; Deborah is also wooed by George, a narcissistic and creepily horny plastic surgeon; and Amy and Don find themselevs attracted to George’s daughter Abigail – who seems more interested in Amy than in Don. Abigail is played by Georgina Campbell, who has since gone on to play Lyta Zod in Krypton on SyFy.
Wildly inappropriate things are said, and even more inappropriate actions are taken. Hilarity ensues.
The characters are all deranged in their unhappiness, trapped in an existential hell straight out of Sartre where they have to put up with each other, but the worst Hell might be the one inside their own heads. Safe to say Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has nothing on this family. They are the poster children for poet Philip Larkin’s dictum, “They fuck you up/ Your mum and dad/ They don’t mean to/ But they do”.
Did I mention this was a comedy?
Creator, writer, and director Will Sharpe plays Shun, the eccentric Japanese illustrator of Maurice’s books who lives in their garden shed – and who is strangely eager to be helpful to them. At first, Shun comes off like an uncomfortable fish-out-of-water Japanese stereotype: drawing weird hentai manga illustrations and speaking broken English in a Japanese accent, almost like a postmodern version of Fawlty Towers’ Manuel character. However, Shun has hidden depths – no less broken than the Flowers, harbouring his own tragic past that explains why he’s so eager to save the Grubbs… and by extension, Maurice and his family.
I wonder if knowing some context behind the creator of this show deepens one’s appreciation for it. I looked up Sharpe and found that he is in fact half-Japanese, half-British, grew up in Japan and the UK, and educated at Cambridge. He has a profound understanding of both British and Japanese society and their mores and the show’s comedic surreal mix of whimsy and tragedy verging on horror that feels both British and Japanese. British and Japanese society both share a fear of embarrassment, emotional repression and sense of shame, and this fuels both the comedy and drama of the show. By the final two episodes of the first series, it becomes clear that Sharpe isn’t out to write a comedy making fun of people going through a tragedy but is actually approaching them from a place of empathy and compassion.
By the end of the first series, when the Flowers’ tics and pathologies melt away and you see who they really are, your heart will break and mend as theirs begin to. And you come away convinced more than ever that Colman is the finest actress in the world.
Series Two premiered in the UK last year after Seeso’s demise and doesn’t miss a beat. It takes place a few years after Series One and since there’s no such thing as “happily ever after,” the Flowers have moved on but there’s always more drama, dysfunction and unhappiness to unravel… with comedy. It too is on Netflix.
Looking for something to help balance-out the sunny, sickly sentimentality of American sitcoms like Modern Family? Well, Flowers is the show for you!