Content warning: this article discusses suicide.
Vivian Cunningham (Thomasin McKenzie) has enough on her plate without living next door to a suicide hot spot. When we meet her, she’s one toe twitch away from electrocuting herself in the bathtub; whether it’s because of her crappy share house, her precarious financial situation, the fact she burnt down her brother’s food truck, or some deep-seated guilt from her childhood, that’s still way too many reasons.
It’s only a call from her other brother Hendrix (Brandon McCelland) telling her their much-loved grandfather has died that brings her back from the edge … and then puts her on another one, as it turns out gramps has left her his cliffside house. Brother John (Rowan Witt) – he of the torched food truck – is not happy, while Hendrix is too distraught (possibly thanks to an ill-timed diet) to make a fuss. Or at least, a different kind of fuss: he’s clearly the emotional one of the trio.
Vivian’s plan is to sell the place, give John his share of the proceeds, and go back to messing up her life. But there’s a catch, and it’s a big one: the house’s back yard is the quickest route to a popular clifftop spot for those looking to throw themselves off.
Her grandfather had a secret part-time job talking the despairing and despondent down. The one-two punch of psychiatrist neighbour Dane (Devon Terrell) and potentially suicidal runaway bride Amy (Contessa Treffone) make it very clear that if she’s not careful, Vivian will also inherit his life-saving duties – and just maybe change her own life in the process.
There have been times in the past when you could make jokes around the subject of suicide. Now is not one of those times. Series creator Gretel Vella and her team are aware of this, and Totally Completely Fine treats suicide 100% seriously 100% of the time: beyond the warning at the start of each episode, it’s a series where at one stage the phone numbers – voice and text – for Lifeline are held up on signs by the characters.
Early in the second episode we get, via an information session given by Dane, a lot of useful facts about suicide prevention. Did you know the usual time taken between deciding to try suicide and the act is five minutes? And that a person who has decided to attempt suicide is usually operating at the cognitive level of an eight-year-old? Now you do, and if you watch Totally Completely Fine you’ll learn a lot more.
Which is a pretty serious burden for a series that otherwise could easily have developed into something of a workplace comedy. Only the workplace is Vivian’s backyard, and her job is dealing with her two struggling brothers, Amy’s quirky nature (once Vivian brings her off the edge, she moves in, claiming her spirit animal – a brolga – has led her here), some offbeat neighbours and a steady stream of potential jumpers.
Vivian has a few rough edges herself. She’s quick to anger and to push people away, and a traumatic past (gradually revealed in snippets of flash backs) has her wracked with guilt and self-loathing, vividly embodied through McKenzie’s excellent performance. But everyone here has their own exhausting traits: Amy is painfully bubbly, John is clearly on the verge of a stress-related breakdown, and Hendricks is constantly bursting into tears. It’s a series about people healing, so they start out brittle and broken.
Totally Completely Fine is a series that’s constantly developing over the course of its six episodes. It takes a little while to get everything into place, but once the main cast are on stage the series briskly tracks their emotional journeys, moving from a fairly abrasive and unsettled beginning through to a more stable, almost sitcom-esque set-up and beyond as the characters continue to develop – or regress – in ways that cause new forms of friction.
The result requires a bit more of a commitment than you might initially expect. As dramedies go, it’s closer to a drama with some quirky moments than a comedy with a serious side. It’s about a group of characters who are all on edge, emotionally and physically, and Vivian is just as damaged and fragile as everyone else.
On the other hand, the house she inherits is amazing. Just put up a serious fence in the back yard to block off the cliff and enjoy the million dollar views!
Totally Completely Fine premieres on Stan on 20 April.
Lifeline Australia offers 24/7 confidential crisis support on 131114 and online.