There are sitcoms. There’s dark comedy. And then there’s Flowers. Starring Olivia Colman and Julian Barratt, the series explores the themes of depression, suicide, and mental illness like no other.
Originally released between 2016 and 2018, Flowers is a TV series commissioned by the British Channel 4 and co-produced by the now defunct Seeso streaming platform. To call it unusual or weird wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it wouldn’t do it proper service, either. When I started watching it for the first time, I was stunned by its outright bizarre combination of the tragic and the hilarious, and even more so by the candid, raw insight into the vicious cycle of sadness, grief, and depression. Not exactly your average sitcom material, is it. But in Flowers it works flawlessly.
The Flowers are a dysfunctional family living in Heathen’s Wood, a village in the proverbial middle of nowhere, in this instance somewhere in an unspecified part of rural England. Maurice (Julian Barratt) is a children’s author, struggling with his career and with suicidal ideation; Deborah (played by Olivia Colman) is his wife, a music tutor and the mother of 25-year-old twins Donald (Daniel Rigby) and Amy (Sophia Di Martino) – all very colourful characters, and all living under one roof. There’s also Shun, a Japanese illustrator who moves in with the Flowers to help with Maurice’s work (played by Will Sharpe, who also happens to be the writer and director).
Episode 1 starts with Maurice’s unsuccessful suicide attempt, and right from the first scene you know this series is going to be something different. The subsequent episodes are an incredibly witty and sophisticated exploration of themes such as friendship, marriage and parenthood, with intergenerational mental health issues as a backdrop. Sharpe himself called Flowers “a comedy with a mental illness”, but what’s also mental, in the affirmative sense of the word, is a very clever and playful use of various other elements: segments of the show resemble experimental, avant-garde films; others draw upon a folkloric, haunting, eerie-England imagery that verges on the gothic and the neopagan (we are in Heathen’s Wood, after all).
A lot has been packed in each 25-minute episode and on top of that comes really good humour. I wouldn’t have thought possible to laugh as much as I did given the show’s central themes. And I wouldn’t have expected to binge on a show like this (I hardly ever do that with any kind of show), yet the first time I found it on Netflix, I sat through both seasons at one go, completely mesmerised by it. There’s a number of other recent comedy series that have successfully thematised mental health issues, such as Flaked (2016-2017) and its view into alcoholism, or After Life (2019-2022) and its portrayal of a grieving man. But the Flowers series is one of a kind. It’s refreshing and original in the way it portrays mental illness in the sitcom genre, bringing fantastic humour to this subject while not in the least diminishing its horrors.
Note: If you’re in the same Netflix region as me, Flowers will be available on the platform only until December 14, 2022, so you’d better hurry!