Mae Martin's Netflix series Feel Good is a raw look at what it takes to truly connect with others
The Canadian comedian's nuanced look at love and addiction could not have come at a better time
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
Two weeks ago, I spoke with Canadian comedian Mae Martin on the phone about her Netflix series Feel Good, which was at that time a few days away from release. Obviously, days have become months and weeks have become years in terms of how time has felt since, so keep that in mind when reading any of Martin's below quotes; we were still living in a relatively normal existence way back then. But while the world may have drastically changed since we spoke, one thing remains the same: Martin's Feel Good is wonderful.
The series finds Martin playing a semi-fictionalized version of herself: a Canadian comedian and recovering drug addict living in London, England (in real life, Martin has been based in London for a decade). In the pilot, she falls hard for George (Charlotte Ritchie), a woman she meets after one of her stand-up gigs (prepare to feel nostalgic for when we used to meet people at places), and by the end of the episode they've already moved in together. But what evolves in the five exceptionally paced episodes that follow (prepare also to watch the entire thing in one sitting) is no meet-cute lesbian romantic comedy. Mae and George's relationship quickly turns toxic, and both characters are forced to face long-spiralling sides of themselves in an effort to salvage the possibility of their union.
"I hope people really relate to the characters and that, in relating to it and connecting with that love story by default, they then feel that they can empathize more with the experience of an addict or a queer person," Martin says. "But generally I think it's a very human story and love is so universal, so I hope that people just connect with the love story and the characters and especially with addiction. I think often when you hear stories about addiction, they're so intense inherently that we can be too harsh for people relate to it."
Martin says she wanted to show "the mundanity of addiction as well and humanize it a bit."
"I think everybody has experienced that feeling of doing something compulsively but you can't stop even though it's having negative effects. That's quite a human thing, so yeah, I hope it humanizes addiction."
Martin has been doing comedy for 20 years, starting out in Toronto when she was just 13 years old. When she moved to the U.K., she started focusing her shows on the issues of addiction and love and where those two things connect.
"[It] really seemed to really resonate with people," Martin says. "So then Channel 4 in England approached me about doing a pilot scripted show based on that. I paired up with my writing partner Joe Hampson and we made the pilot, and then Netflix came on board."
Going into its release, Martin says that she was feeling a mix of vulnerability and excitement.
"I think it's very much a curated version of myself, maybe where I was about 10 years ago," she says. "I've distilled every drop of drama and turned up the volume on everything. So I feel detached enough from it that I don't feel totally exposed, but I feel really proud of it."
A significant difference between Martin's real life and the life of her character on Feel Good is that in real life Martin's mother isn't...Lisa Kudrow. While there is much to praise about the series, Kudrow's performance (largely via FaceTime calls from her character's home in Canada) is a major highlight, and the actress coming on board was obviously a major deal for Martin.
"I'm a huge fan of The Comeback and Web Therapy and I think she's a really rare and amazing icon," she says. "When we were writing that character — because the character is really different to my actual mother, who is incredible and very patient — we wanted to write a kind of iconic antagonist, and we wrote with Lisa in mind just as we found it easier to write that way. Like, how could Lisa Kudrow perform this? So when it came time to cast it, we just sent her the script on a whim. And then she really quickly got in touch and said she liked the scripts and we sent her more. She watched some of my stand-up and she was just so supportive from the beginning, and so much fun on set. I could not stop laughing and ruining things because she was really just everything you wanted to be."
Other than the portrayal of mother, most of Martin's character on the series aligns with aspects of her own identity. And while it certainly handles that with respect to Martin's queerness and history with addiction in a nuanced and interesting way, perhaps the most unique thing about Feel Good is how much it actively incorporates her Canadian identity. Every episode makes mention of Martin's Canuck roots in some way (in one episode, George asks Mae to "talk Canadian to her" in bed and she recites the story of forming as a federal dominion in 1867, while in another Mae gets a Sum 41 tattoo), which isn't exactly commonplace from the series our country exports to the world stage. Schitt's Creek, for example, remains geographically anonymous heading into its final few episodes despite being one of Canada's most celebrated scripted comedies.
"I mean, I am Canadian," Martin laughs when asked about why it was important for that to be such a presence in the series. "And it's also just that I think specificity is much more interesting and funny. I mean, we're writing about about my life. Of course I'm a proud Canadian, so it makes sense. And also, it amplifies the kind of fish out of water feeling that that character has."
As we all scramble to find more and more content to binge-watch our way through our self-isolations, Feel Good in many ways could not have come at a better time — though, a warning: it probably won't make you feel what its title suggests you might. With each episode, the series grows more and more raw as Martin digs a little deeper into how much personal work is necessary for humans to really co-exist with one another. Ultimately, though, this does prove to be a hopeful concept given the current state of things. Feel Good might not make you feel good, but it could inspire you to utilize all the time we have right now to put in the work so we can least eventually feel a little better.