Absolutely Fabulous is one of the best comedies of all time, no question. Sam Brooks explains why.
The first television show I remember falling in love with was Absolutely Fabulous. I was four.
Now, I can’t remember why exactly I was allowed to watch Absolutely Fabulous, a show where the two lead characters spend more time high than drunk and more time drunk than sober, when I was in kindergarten. Nothing about a show following the toxic friendship of two privileged alcoholic women and their various moneyed hijinks suggests that it would be of interest to a child, let alone recommended viewing.
Perhaps I saw the bright colours of Edina’s Christian Lacroix wardrobe and gravitated towards it. Perhaps I loved the plummy tones of Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley and Julia Sawalha. Perhaps my mother assumed that as a clearly homosexual child destined to fill his mouth with as many words as possible, I would eventually find my way to Absolutely Fabulous. So why delay the inevitable?
Regardless, it’s a love that has sustained right up until the present day. (For the record, we don’t speak of the 2016 movie, like we don’t speak about the friend who turns up to the bar already half a bottle of wine deep. Nobody’s perfect, and we can ignore recent mistakes in favour of good memories.)
And when I say love, I mean full-on teenaged obsession puppy love. I read the published scripts so many times I wore out the spine, just like I wore out the tapes of the first three seasons, and when the fourth and fifth seasons aired on TV One I taped them and watched them so many times that I still remember what the ads were.
But is Absolutely Fabulous actually good, I hear you ask through the internet screen?
Look. Let’s be real. Like our friend at brunch who shows up half a bottle down, the show hasn’t aged incredibly well. It’s a very white show, and whenever a person of colour is on the show, you can bet there’s at least five jokes that could charitably be described as problematic, and accurately described as flat-out racist. Even more jarringly, there’s a long-running transphobic joke at Patsy’s expense (and you know, the expense of anybody who happens to be be trans).
For a show that is surprisingly progressive when it comes to women and the LGBT community in general, especially for a mainstream pre-watershed British show from the ’90s, it’s disappointing that the show stubbornly stuck its feet into that regressive ground.
But if you can overlook that, and absolutely fair enough if you can’t, then what you’re left with is one of the best television comedies to have ever existed. No hyperbole involved.
A huge part of why the show works is Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. Which sounds dumb – Saunders is the creator and the protagonist, and Lumley is the other protagonist. Of course they’re a huge part of why it works! But a lot of the comedy in Absolutely Fabulous comes from the fact that these are two prim and proper women who are getting more down and dirty than any dude on TV before them.
And they get way more savage than any dude on TV had before, or even since (with the exception of The Thick Of It‘s Malcolm Tucker, potentially). Absolutely Fabulous had abortion jokes – many, many abortion jokes – twenty years ago. It punches up in the most beautiful way, and the characters are more emotionally brutal than anything you can possibly see on Game of Thrones. Unlike so many shows where the cruelty and the edginess is the point, Absolutely Fabulous never felt like it was being edgy just for the sake of it. The comedy came first, and the show always went for the comedy.
Saunders and Lumley went all the way there, you guys. They weren’t afraid to get ugly for a joke. Lumley digs deep into Patsy, one of the greatest comic creations of all times (and remember, Lumley hadn’t even done comedy before this); she goes as far as she physically (and vocally) can. The scene where Patsy eats, presumably for the first time since the seventies, is one of the funniest goddamned things in the entire show. But since YouTube doesn’t have that, I instead give you the iconic ‘is it a bee’ scene:
Which brings me to why my unashamedly feminist mother probably let a tiny me watch it. It shows women at their best, and it also shows them to be deeply flawed individuals who can get through pretty much anything.
Take the end of season three, which seemed at the time to be the finale of the entire series. Edina and Patsy have a friend break-up (it might be a little worrying that the first image I had of a functioning friendship was the often toxic relationship between these two nightmares), and even though they try and make it by themselves in the big wide world, they eventually realise they need each other and re-unite.
God knows I didn’t understand it at the time, but at some point in my (no exaggeration) fifty re-watches of this episode, I internalised what true friendship (or at least best friendship) is. It’s realising you’ve found that one person who you can fuck up endlessly around, and usually with, and no matter how bad those fuck-ups are you’re always gonna come back together.
Absolutely Fabulous is full of (dubious as hell) lessons like that. For any life issue I’ve had, I know there’s an episode of Absolutely Fabulous that, if it doesn’t teach me something, will at least soothe my bruised soul. It also makes me realise what bits of Absolutely Fabulous I have internalised with, if I’m honest, not totally positive results.
There’s the first season episode ‘Birthday’, where Edina turns forty and, for some reason her daughter only invites Edina’s apathetic mother and her two ex-husbands. Edina gets drunk and is an absolute monster, until she finds out her ex-husband bought her a karaoke machine, so she drunkenly sings ‘Wheels on Fire’ with her best friend. At my last birthday, I ghosted the party without telling anybody and went home and watched this episode, and realised that I’d acted just as immaturely as Edina did.
On the rare occasion when I run into a bit of money, I watch the episode ‘Poor’, where Saffron tricks Edina into thinking that she’s poor, and so Edina and Patsy try to go shopping at the supermarket and end up in court, where Edina then advocates a ‘stupidity tax’ to just tax the stupid people. It reminds me not to act like that, and to limit my bonus spending to the fancy aisle at Countdown.
I watch ‘Death’, the season two episode where Edina has no reaction to her father’s death until it makes her question her own mortality, which she does by buying a lot of art for investment purposes. It makes me realise that no matter how badly I deal with the grieving process, at least I’m not going to show up to the funeral drunk and stumble into the grave.
It was a cold night in 2011 when my grandfather died, because it was in the middle of winter. He was a 6’4 dude who had worked in submarines, went to Antarctica with Sir Edmund Hillary and had the nickname ‘Lofty’. As solid a dude as they come. My mum came home at about 2am from the hospice care where he had spent the last few weeks, and she was understandably tired. Without saying a word, while my mum poured two glasses of cask wine (the Brooks are a classy people), I got out my Absolutely Fabulous box sets and put on ‘Death’.
We’d both seen the episode before, me more than her, but she’d definitely overheard at least half of the fifty times I’d seen it, and when we laughed at the jokes it was out of habit as much as anything. We drank and laughed, and had a little bit of a cry.
At its best, Absolutely Fabulous is a portrait of friendship staying together in the face of all the shit that life throws at you. If these two absolute piles of money, Stoli-Boli and Christian Lacroix suits can stay together through poverty, through death, through birthdays and through being ‘fat’ (yeah, the show is problematic about that as well), then surely all of us can.
When life throws shit at you, open a bottle of Boli, grab your best friend and say some sweetie darlings and everything will be all right.
Also, it’s the only show to have a completely bonkers Pet Shop Boys song comprised entirely of dialogue snippets from the show:
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