My Pandemic Bad-Good TV Pick: “Flack”

The Amazon series “Flack” passes the Bechdel test with flying colors—but is it feminist to be an anti-hero? There are many more than 2 women; they all have names; they talk about a lot of things other than men: crises, cocaine, carefully crafted lies. Flack is dirty, salacious, problematic, and deeply bingeable.This look at fast-paced (and highly unrealistic) British celebrity PR dives into media manipulation, trauma, addiction, friendship, and family from the eyes of its female protagonists.  Starring Anna Paquin as expat Robyn with strong support from Jewish actress Sophie Okonedo, this show kept me going back for more, even as I hated myself a little bit for it. But if you’re looking for something to distract you from this endless late-stage pandemic, I recommend it.

It’s exactly what I need right now. Despite the excellent acting and brilliant cast, it’s just not that great by certain standards. And I just don’t care. My standards for new content during the pandemic are low. Is it engaging? Check. Can I enjoy it without working too hard? Check. Does it take my mind off (looks around vaguely) everything? Check check check. Will it grow up to be a real show and make the most of the bones that are already there? Will it probe the feminism, and girl-boss cruelty, and racial tensions, and addiction and stress and grief that it now presents without question?  Well, we’ll see. There’s no doubt the cast could handle it. It’s not clear if the audience wants it. 

Despite the excellent acting and brilliant cast, it’s just not that great by certain standards. And I just don’t care. 

The show features almost every cliché in the book: Robyn (Paquin) is deeply broken, even as she spends her days fixing things. She has – of course – a traumatic backstory, and – of course – the trauma stems from her mother. She has a too-perfect boyfriend (Sam), a cruel best friend (Eve), and a sister (Ruth) who offers the only truly meaningful relationship in her life (and in the show). Robyn’s relationship with Eve seems to consist of exchanging clever barbs and reveling in how manipulative and mean they both are. Everyone around her seems to see something in Robyn, so we the viewers keep waiting for her to reveal her heart of gold, because that’s the way these things go. She doesn’t have one. No, but really. She actually is that much of a mess. And yet, as is the way with anti-heroes, we keep rooting for Robyn, even as the show tells us again and again that when people keep telling us who they are, we should believe them. 

The show has the “crisis of the week” format, which Robyn and her crew often solve in the most outrageous and unethical ways possible. In these efforts to conceal, cover-up, capitalize, and conduct attention, Robyn and her colleagues are supported by Okonedo’s Caroline. The actress steals the show, but even as Okonedo makes the absolute best of what she’s given and then some, down to a perfect curl of the lip, her character, like everyone except basically Robyn, is one-dimensional. (Robyn gets to spend a lot of time looking in mirrors and not liking what she sees. Sometimes the mirrors have cocaine on them.)

There’s a lot to unpack here: what does it mean for Caroline to be a Black woman boss reigning over her white underlings? She’s abusive: in one scene she tells her team that amongst the things that should not happen on a job is menstruating; in another, she throws an apple at an employee and says that next time, it would be a glass. She’s hard. She’s cruel. There are probably reasons why. We don’t get a chance to explore them, and honestly?  We don’t really care. 

The show had a two-season run over in the UK on Pop TV before it was cancelled. Amazon, possibly starved for content, picked it up and released the entire first 6-episode season while holding back the next one to build interest. And I’m interested.

It would be wrong to call “Flack” light – there is, hidden behind the predictability – real trauma here, and conflict and real pain. But it’s so predictable and formulaic that it makes watching this…easy. And fun. It’s gritty and dirty and silly and well-executed, and I was glad to have it. Season 2 is already out there, and I’m waiting for it to drop. I know Robyn will continue to fix messes professionally even as she creates them privately, and I know that somehow, it will all work out. She may be bad, but she’s also very very good. Exactly like this show.