Zesty Brit Hit ‘Everything I Know About Love’ Mixes Pleasure with Wisdom: TV Review

·5-min read

The success of “Fleabag” loosed a glut of shows about young women tottering – heels broken, mascara smeared – in the vague direction of adult responsibility. Few have been as purely enjoyable as “Everything I Know About Love,” Dolly Alderton’s adaptation of her own memoir, which debuts on Peacock this week after winning plaudits on the BBC in midsummer.

With its photogenic cast, pyjama-party vibe and commitment to steering its characters towards better things, this Working Title-produced, London-set miniseries should provide superior comfort TV for anyone constitutionally unable to face Nathan Fielder’s postmodern provocations or the carnage of a “Game of Thrones” prequel. It’ll be only more comforting the more years you have on the show’s fresh-faced principals.

Alderton’s onscreen surrogate is Maggie Marshall (Emma Appleton), encountered just before the 2012 Olympics as a flighty 24-year-old blogger with a thrusting new beau in porkpie hat-sporting, multiple red flag-raising troubadour Street (Connor Finch). While this dubious attachment plays out, Maggie lands her notional dream job scripting reality show “Heirs and Graces.” Drawing from Alderton’s early gig on U.K. hit “Made in Chelsea,” this subplot vastly improves upon “Bridget Jones’s Diary’s” depiction of TV-land, approaching a droll punchline as Maggie attempts to contrive a gotcha ending for her bosses. Even here, though, our heroine’s fake-it-‘til-you-make-it façade keeps slipping; like Bambi on the ice, she’s unsure on her feet, headed for a spin.

As “Fleabag” was for Phoebe Waller-Bridge, this feels like a breakthrough role for Appleton, who turned heads as a Brit Mata Hari in 2019’s Channel 4/Netflix co-production “Traitors” before fleshing out the altogether unsympathetic Nancy Spungen of Hulu’s “Pistol.” Appleton demonstrates a louche, loose-limbed charm, boozing like Richard E. Grant’s Withnail in spangly jumpsuits, but she’s also touchingly attuned to Maggie’s variable, boy-determined self-esteem (“Do you think anyone will have a fetish for lanky white girls who talk too much and stop giving blowjobs after a month?”). Forever yearning for more than she’s told herself she deserves, Appleton’s Maggie suggests an intelligence being redefined by experience, trying to sift what’s real and valuable from the meaningless but exhilarating.

Most valuable of all are the three contemporaries with which Maggie shares a Camden flat: cautious, virginal Birdy (Bel Powley), with her middle-class aspiration of working at department store John Lewis; unhappily settled teacher-in-training Nell (Marli Siu), tempted by a married colleague offering freshman mischief; and guarded Amara (Aliyah Odoffin), whose ambitions in dance are only tentatively revealed. The show hits a comic peak whenever the girls have a night in by themselves, using the interplay between four terrific performers to crosshatch a vital support network: those friendships that can catch a gal whenever she falls and carry her onwards unscathed.

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Around them, the recreation of boho Camden, with its infinite leisure and pleasure options, benefits from the U.K. industry’s growing facility for framing London as both ramshackle and romantic, lordly and lived-in. China Moo-Young and Julia Ford’s agreeably wide-eyed direction will likely leave 15-year-old viewers desperate to relocate thereabouts, no matter that a decade of rent hikes means they’d be unlikely to afford the flatmates’ spacious pied-à-terre. For Alderton, however, where you end up is less significant than the map of connections you draw for yourself. Even amid a late New York jaunt, Maggie – group alpha, as sporadic childhood flashbacks underline – can be seen struggling with the fact that erstwhile fledgling Birdy is outgrowing her in life and love.

Still, don’t expect the psychosexual complexity of “Fleabag,” the show that launched a thousand doctoral theses. Everything mostly bobs around at surface level, more comfortable sketching Birdy’s Jewish heritage in a diversion to suburban Stanmore than it is unpacking Amara’s Black Britishness, though one mid-series confrontation does at least address the spectre of white privilege hovering over long stretches. Alderton’s busy gathering rosebuds, observations about urban interaction, and moment-specific details such as the rapid, tech-driven changes in dating, one character’s passion-killing obsession with unfashionable retro rockers Toploader, the toffee vodka that (dis)graced every London fridge in the early ‘teens.

Bottling whatever optimism pre-Brexit Britain possessed, the series proceeds with the breezy confidence of Working Title’s 1990s romcoms, and a similar streak of generosity towards its supporting players that bulks out its sense of a many-storied city. There are deft, funny contributions from Sophie Thompson and Nicholas Farrell as Maggie’s understandably concerned parents; Craig Parkinson as a dodgy celebrity landlord; Jill Halfpenny as a Geordie TV producer who opens the Pandora’s box of Tinder with a decidedly NSFW salespitch; and Jenny Funnell as a gynaecologist who contextualizes such carnal freedoms before briefing Maggie that her cervix has “real star quality.” (That’s the kind of line that only stays in when an author is adapting herself.)

Among strong craft credits, production designer Charlotte Pearson visibly enjoys herself decorating the girls’ flat, with its wall-mounted fumbles for sophistication, deployed to distract the eye from creeping damp patches. And music supervisor Iain Cooke excels, summoning ever-evocative soundtrack cues that feel instinctively right to these characters in this time and place. Grumpier observers might prefer fewer choreographed dance routines, but even these retain some measure of narrative rationale, allowing our heroines to re-synch after each new upset or waywardness. As young Birdy tells Maggie early on: “Stop crying, I want us to do the Macarena.” Sometimes you need a friend to tell you that; sometimes you want a show that does the same thing.

“Everything I Know About Love” is now available on Peacock. Seven episodes (all seven screened for review).
Production:
Executive Producers: Dolly Alderton, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Surian Fletcher-Jones, Amelia Granger, Jo McClellan.
Cast: Emma Appleton, Bel Powley, Aliyah Odoffin, Marli Siu, Jill Halfpenny, Ryan Bown.

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