Reality TV is still tending towards the same old, same old: celebs locked in houses doing unspeakable things to each other in bathrooms, or stars chewing on duodenum in deserted parts of the world. But if you’re looking for something that reflects actual reality – like the feeling you get in your gut when you look in the mirror – then watch My Mad Fat Diary, the teen drama now showing on E4.
Its central character Rae is as mad and fat as the title promises, but she’s also kind and insecure and loyal and rude and over-dramatic and angry, all at the same time. She also loves Walnut Whips, without the walnuts. Where season one dealt largely with Rae’s mental health problems, one area in which this second season triumphs is its gentle treatment of Rae’s size. Her eating issues are explored with the revelation that she hasn’t eaten in front of anyone but her mother in 10 years. Some of the symbolism is far from subtle – when Rae opens the doors to a forbidden cupboard of food to calm herself down, she takes six cans of beans to the face – but it’s still a uniquely honest treatment of an unhealthy relationship with food.
The 10pm slot belies one further important aspect: Rae is also one of the most sexually charged characters on television. So lurid and confusing are her own fantasies that, in her own words: “The vagina police should come and take my bits away.” I can’t help but hope they don’t because, despite a spectacular cast of women, Rae’s interactions with men are still the highlights of the episodes.
Rae and her coterie have grown up a bit and moved on to college, where they face new issues. Archie struggles to hide his sexuality under the enthusiastic ministrations of a high-ponytailed blonde; Chloe fights to maintain her queen bee status by having topless glamour shots taken, then posting them around the college herself under the guise of blackmail. Hey, we’ve all been there. One of the main strengths of the show has always been the lack of filler character – the cast are brilliant, the plotting tight and the dialogue snappy – but you can’t help best enjoying the parts where Rae sinks into her own head.
The focus of this season has been Rae and the perfect-bottomed Finn, who explore their relationship with equal measures of tenderness and terror. It’s pure high-school pain when Rae judges herself a four-out-of-10 and Finn an 11; carnal comedy when they begin to get intimate behind closed doors in Rae’s bedroom. What could become hurt-your-teeth-sweet is instead gripping stuff, and not just because you’re so vested in the pairing. The source of the stress is the certainty that Rae will find a way to turn her happiness into something she has more experience with. Despair, disaster, sadness – any of the above.
A scene in which she is locked in a disabled bathroom with Finn turns into a panicked horror show of pointing and nicknames, and Rae finds herself in the one place she least wants to be: the spotlight. You can’t stay out of the spotlight when you date someone with a perfect bottom. Just ask Jennifer Aniston. The decline of the long-anticipated relationship seems inevitable, and yet the moment where Rae chooses her mental health and her anonymity over Finn is one where you wish, just once, the show would take the easy route. There’s a reason that there’s still a place in our hearts for shows such as Friends, even in an era of intelligent and non-hackneyed television. Mad Fad Diary is by turns infuriating, enlightening and hilarious, but it’s not there to make you happy.
It’s not all hopeless. Rae’s love life takes another sharp turn with her blossoming relationship with Liam – a character about as far from Finn the love god as possible. Where Finn was an exercise in perfection, Liam is a mirror to Rae. He’s fat and he’s mad and she’s falling for him, and there’s something about that that makes their first kiss even more poignant. Does it mean that Rae’s going to learn to love herself? Probably not – but it makes the departure from Finn a little easier to take.
Possibly the best new appearance has been the wonderfully named Stacey Stringfellow, Chloe’s idol-cum-nemesis, Finn’s ex and Rae’s puzzle to solve. Leader of the popular crowd, she’s all big blue eyes, hair gel and brilliantly predictable evil, and Rae’s takedown of her at the close of the third episode will make you raise a slice of pizza in salute.
There’s a reason why this show reads like the diary of a confused and angry teen read aloud – it is. But it also proves that you don’t need to be going through puberty to laugh, cry, shout and wail in the space of 50 minutes.