Fourteen months ago I was sitting in the parking garage of The Getty Villa fighting with my girlfriend. I was filled with self-righteousness.
She made me feel bad about myself – all of a sudden she made me feel bad about myself. I felt inadequate as a girlfriend, I’d certainly failed as a boyfriend, and I knew that the distance between us was definitely her fault. She wasn’t out when we started dating and, okay, fine, neither was I, but now I was a dyke trans poster child for obvious queerness and she got to be a soft femme pansexual cis woman who fit in just as well with the straight people who side-eyed me as she did the queer people who were like me. Sure, she loved me, but every moment I felt that it would be easier for her if she didn’t.
Well, you’ll be shocked to find out that upon verbalizing these thoughts, I felt foolish. It’s too simple to say they weren’t true – I mean, they weren’t – but within the falsities were real questions. How do two queer people experience love? How do two queer people still figuring out their sexualities, their genders, their shames, their traumas, their pasts, their futures, their vastly different presents make a relationship work? And when it’s not supposed to work how will they know when all that other bullshit is in the way?
Mae Martin’s new Netflix show Feel Good starts with a ten minute romcom that’s easy to relish for all the wrong reasons. Martin plays a version of herself – a Canadian comedian living in London who’s queer and anxious and is aptly compared to both a puppy and an androgynous muppet. After her set one night, fictional Mae starts flirting with a woman named George (Charlotte Ritchie). George says she’s never been with a woman before but then they kiss and before the title card even appears on-screen they move in together.
Lesbian Uhaul jokes have been hack since the 90s. But as queer people continue to play out old stereotypes it’s worth exploring the sometimes unsettling nature of these behaviors. After this opening sequence that has us ready to root for Mae, George, their delightful flirting, and their whirlwind romance, the cracks begin to form. Mae’s energy is eager and aggressive in a way that quickly loses its appeal. We realize that George still hasn’t introduced Mae to her friends. We meet Mae’s parents over FaceTime and her mom – a remarkable and hilarious performance from Lisa Kudrow – is clearly one of those people who hates themselves so much you know they hate you too. And then we learn that Mae is a recovering drug addict – and, more importantly, George learns this too.
Throughout the show’s six episodes, Mae fights to move on from her addiction, confront her familial hurt, and be the person she thinks George wants. Meanwhile, George is working to overcome her own shame, accept her queerness, and communicate her needs to herself and Mae. Hardly a moment passes that isn’t filled with their relationship’s impending doom. Both characters are just too lost in themselves to be there for each other.
This makes the show sound heavy – and, at times, it is – but Martin is so casually charming and all the writing is so sharp that the heavier moments feel as random as they do inevitable. Maybe it’s the quarantine, but there were lines and scenes in this show that made me laugh harder than I have in a long, long time.
Most of the straight press has compared Feel Good to Fleabag which has been happening to a lot of shows – it’s the new every young woman is the *insert adjective* Lena Dunham. And while it’s true both shows are British and revolve around flawed protagonists with love and sex addictions, what’s lost in the comparison is how intrinsically tied in plot and theme Feel Good is to its queerness.
This isn’t just a show about an addict and her codependent girlfriend. It’s a show about a queer person who thinks she’s probably nonbinary and definitely unhappy. It’s a show about another queer person who all her life used normalcy as a defense mechanism and now doesn’t know what to do without it. It’s a show that introduces a queer character who’s funny and hot and comfortable in her gayness but is ignored by our protagonist who isn’t ready for that reality. It’s a show with lines like “The only reason you’d chase people who aren’t attracted to your entire gender is because you hate yourself.” and “I’m going to be left watching The L Word and googling ‘Am I gay?’ while you barnacle yourself to the next straight girl you meet.” and “I’m not a boy. I’m not even a girl. I’m like a failed version of both.”
There are times in Feel Good where you hate George and love Mae, filled with the same self-righteousness that I felt in that parking garage. And there are times where you loathe Mae and feel for George, filled with the same shame I felt two minutes later. Mae and George are deeply flawed – most of us are – but can they be in love despite that? While queer people are still figuring themselves out – a project often more complicated for us – can we have that swoon-worthy ten minute love story?
The show doesn’t answer that question. But it does insist that we deserve love to some degree – even if it isn’t a partner’s love. Maybe for some of us romantic love is just a shortcut anyway. Maybe what some of us need is a parent or a friend or a sponsor.
One of the show’s heavier moments involves another addict getting talked down by his sponsor after a relapse. She wants him to say that he is loved. He doesn’t want to. “Say it,” she insists. “You are loved.” Finally he breaks down. He says it.
I am loved.