Netflix's Feel Good is a complex queer love story — and so much more

Queer characters that aren't one-dimensional? That does feel good.
Queer characters that aren't one-dimensional? That does feel good.

Because the first season of UK import Feel Good hit American Netflix in mid-March 2020 — right as a certain airborne virus began upending our lives — you might have been too distracted by toilet paper scarcity to notice. I only learned about the romantic dramedy series when season two arrived this June. Netflix's algorithm was like: "You're queer, right Elissa? Here's an LGBTQ+ show." Thanks, creepy algorithm! But seriously: This bitter-and-sweet show is worth watching no matter your orientation. With gloomy humor and a willingness to explore sticky emotions, Feel Good matches the COVID-era tone.

Set in England and Canada, the series follows "Mae," a slightly fictionalized, heavily autobiographical version of the real Mae Martin: a short-haired, bisexual Canadian stand-up comic who survived a teenage cocaine addiction and moved to England in hopes of starting fresh and breaking into the UK comedy scene.

We first glimpse rising-star Mae at The Gag Bin comedy club in Manchester on the night she meets "George" (short for "Georgina," played by Charlotte Ritchie), a British teacher who's previously only dated men. As the pair's relationship unfolds, tears and repairs, Mae must confront her own addictive impulses and haunted past.

"I'm Pac-Man! I'm a hungry, empty ghost," Mae tells her mother, Linda (played by Lisa Kudrow), when describing the urge to "jump from thing to thing" in pursuit of feel-good dopamine. Whether that high comes from chemicals or the sort of chemistry that can push a relationship from zero to U-Haul rental in mere weeks, compulsive Mae craves a rush. Immediately, Mae and George share that crackling-hot chemistry. But is it enough?

Feel Good is more than a love story. It also portrays the complicated knots that tie together any "community." Mae's distant parents do care, yet they also make harsh (at times hypocritical) comments; her fellow comics are sources of both pain and protection; George's friends are comforting but infuriating; and Mae's connections with her Narcotics Anonymous group members get very tricky.

The show allows gender and sexuality to be complex, too, echoing (the real) Martin's bisexuality bit: "No one believes me that I'm attracted to men, because I look like I'm in One Direction." While Martin recently announced that they are nonbinary — and now uses they/them and she/her pronouns (but never "female" or "lesbian") — fictional Mae makes comments like, "I don't feel very positive about my gender at the moment," yet only uses she/her pronouns, for now.

It's clear to queer viewers that Feel Good is made by one of us. (Martin is a series co-creator and co-writer.) The intimate scenes — though tame — are blushingly accurate. The specific relationship dynamics (who's out, who's not) are ultra-relatable. All that's cool, but what's even cooler is the fact that Mae is kind of a ... dirtbag. Her behavior makes you yell: "Why?!"

That complexity sure does feel good. What a relief to see queer roles written not as villain, angel or tragic martyr — but human.

Although Feel Good has a Rotten Tomatoes critics rating of 100 percent, I wouldn't call it perfect. Some casting seems a little off, creating a mismatch of tones where certain minor characters make broad comic choices as if they're in a Judd Apatow flick. Over-the-top deliveries detract from the show's rhythm and depth. Subtle glances and tender turns are strengths of the series, especially when Mae's witty defense system shatters as she faces tough realities about power dynamics of her youth, this time through grown-up eyes.

Mae is like a moody, funny friend who can handle an honest answer to the question: "How are you really doing?" Her sad-clown vibes are oddly comforting and COVID-appropriate. Bleak one-liners and snippets of Mae's stand-up sets — plus a lively soundtrack studded with Fleet Foxes and Spice Girls — balance Feel Good's scales of drama and comedy. ♦

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