Big Mood review – Nicola Coughlan is a force of nature

by 24britishtvMarch 29, 2024, 3 a.m. 21
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In the opening episode of Big Mood, struggling playwright Maggie (Derry Girls’ and Bridgerton’s Nicola Coughlan) is on a mission. And on a scooter. But that was an expensive mistake, so she gives it away to a passerby. She needs her best friend Eddie (It’s a Sin’s Lydia West) to take the day off work, running the bar her late dad left her, and come with her to her old secondary school, where she has been invited to make a speech about her career in the theatre. Maggie is hoping to meet her old history teacher, Mr Wilson, on whom she developed a passionate teenage crush after he saved her from lecherous maths teacher Mr Phillips. “Because he wouldn’t shag a child!” she beams, full of blissful memory. “Wow,” says Eddie. “We should nominate him for a Pride of Britain award.”

Off they go, and a parade of increasingly manic hijinks ensue. Which is very much expected sitcommery until Eddie asks, as they escape the now chaos-filled school, if Maggie is, well, manic. And she is. She has bipolar disorder, and has stopped taking her meds because she can’t write while she’s on them. Thus, we find ourselves in this bleaker territory for the rest of the six-episode series, which explores the limits of a decade-long friendship between the two women as the pressures of post-20s life start to mount. “I fix problems – you have them,” says Eddie cheerily at the start. But no relationship can survive such a state for ever.

Big Mood remains very broad-brush throughout, like the posh, hapless bartender Klent (Eamon Farren), who has wholly improbably built a rat palace in the bar’s backroom (purely to provide a conclusion to episode two, it seems), a disastrous fake dinner party in episode three and the advent of Maggie’s monstrous mother (Kate Fleetwood) towards the end of the series.

But everyone is giving it all they’ve got, and while you can sometimes sense the straining after-effect, there is still much to enjoy. There are lovely touches, like Eddie knowing, as only a longtime friend would, that the promise of a trip to TK Maxx just after a kitchenware delivery is more likely to get her melancholy friend out of bed than anything more traditionally fun. Sally Phillips’ turn as a useless psychiatrist – the perfect deployment of her irreproducible frantic-yet-deadpan energy – is a joy, and a worthy comment on the dilapidated state of our mental health services. The “girlborsh” section, too, captures something very awkward perfectly. Coughlan is a force of nature – funny to her bones but able to deliver the depression and deep reckoning that comes with learning that you cannot escape your mind’s wiring and misfiring by simply wishing it away. West does well with a less showy part – though creator and writer Camilla Whitehill is careful to give her some meaty storylines rather than simply letting her be a foil for Coughlan.

It is all well done, especially by a writer making her small screen debut (Whitehall and Coughlan previously created the popular podcast comedy Whistle Through the Shamrocks together) and clearly well intentioned. So you can feel the frustration mount as the damn thing refuses to catch fire, take flight or whatever your preferred metaphor is for wishing – here comes another one – for the whole to become more than the sum of its parts. In form and subject matter, it inevitably invites comparisons with Aisling Bea’s masterly This Way Up and – almost as inevitably – fails to measure up. You wish for a bit more nuance, for characters a bit more acutely drawn (does it really feel true that Eddie’s brother would react to their father’s death by becoming a prepper?), a few more breaths taken, a bit more exploration before we move on to more shenanigans.

Perhaps Big Mood also suffers from bad timing (not internally – all these comedy players know what they’re doing). There is a faint suspicion that the market for comedies with the twist that one of the main characters is experiencing or has experienced bad mental health has reached saturation point. I sometimes feel that nervous breakdowns and suicidal ideation have become to sitcoms what sexual abuse was to drama in the 80s – your go-to emotional driver, with all the risks of diminishing returns that entails. We’re not there yet, and Big Mood is worth your time, but I wonder if we’ve crested and are just starting to peer out over the downward slope.

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