In 'Girlfriends,' women get the pain, laughs, no Botox
The women of "Girlfriends" are having a very rough go of it, and that's just in the first episode.
Miranda Richardson's Sue is dumped by her lover and the magazine she helped him build. Phyllis Logan's Linda is abruptly widowed and may be broke. Zoe Wanamaker's Gail is losing a husband to divorce and gaining her ex-con son.
"It's high farce what happens on one day to all these people, who are sort of thrown together in the storm," Richardson said during a recent visit to Southern California.
But there's pain to be had in Acorn TV's six-episode "Girlfriends," which neatly combines drama, humor and mystery and, significantly, is delivered up by three veteran actresses. Netflix's Jane Fonda-Lily Tomlin series "Grace and Frankie" aside, there are scant Hollywood TV or movie vehicles that give full voice to mature women and their experiences.
So it's up to the U.K.'s "Girlfriends" to help fill the void. The series, from prolific English writer-director Kay Mellor, is debuting here courtesy of the British-centric Acorn streaming service. The show is something of an anomaly in its native land: When its trio of stars aged 50-plus was announced, it made the evening news.
There are younger characters, male and female, in "Girlfriends," including Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom in the "Harry Potter" movie franchise) as Gail's son. But Lewis knows his character's place in the scheme of things.
He recalled series mastermind Mellor discussing TV's habit of relegating female characters to serving as the mothers, wives or secretaries of the men who carry the story.
"She said, 'We wanted to make a show where, no, they were the focus and it was the men that were supporting roles,'" Lewis said during a recent Q&A with TV critics.
As a well-meaning if wayward son and single dad, he gets a chance to shine in the role — literally, since his character, Tom, sports a glossy fake tan to make it appear he's back from an island vacation, not the slammer.
But center ring is owned by the three respected actresses who play longtime friends reunited by their woes. Richardson's credits range from "The Crying Game" to "Black Adder II" to the "Harry Potter" role of Rita Skeeter. Logan played the admirable housekeeper Mrs. Hughes in "Downton Abbey" (yes, she'd love to see the talked-about movie happen but has no update to offer). Wanamaker appeared in "Agatha Christie's Poirot" and "Mr. Selfridge."
Another sign it's a British show: The women look attractive and real.
"It would be ludicrous if a woman meant to be working class was looking like she'd Botox-ed off her face," Logan said in an interview, referring to the injectable potion that reduces facial movement and thus lines. "It's not believable, is it?"
The actresses make the most of their roles, from the occasional bits of slapstick to moments of vulnerability. All revolves around the small indignities of aging — those darn wrinkles, gray hair — and the bigger life crises that don't discriminate by decade.
For Richardson's Sue, there's a memorable hear-me-roar moment in which she bravely confronts her disloyal partner and then discovers the makeup she applied while driving is at absurd, kabuki face-paint levels.
"She thinks she knows what she's going to say and how she's going to do it, and she's holding it together," Richardson said in an interview. "And she's betrayed herself. Awful, awful."
As her glossy life crumbles, type-A Sue has a lot to learn.
"I don't think she's unkind, but maybe she needs to get kinder to herself. Instead of making pronouncements to other people, 'you should do this,' she needs to look after herself," Richardson said.
Logan, who pulled off an impressive kitchen pratfall with a stuntwoman's help, is game for anything her character may face if there's a second season of "Girlfriends." Or almost anything.
"If I was asked to be in a bikini, I might draw the line," she said, smiling.
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