If comedy is tough, then dramedy – the fashionable blend of laughs and drama – is even harder to get right. In large part that’s because all too often the end product feels like the result of someone thinking that adding a few jokes into a serious story (or worse, trying to write a comedy then tacking on a serious ending like they’ve just seen the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth) is all they need to do. To work, a successful dramedy needs to get both sides right: it needs to be funny as a comedy, while still holding together as a drama. Based on its opening episode, Frayed pulls it off.
The year is 1989, the place is London, and Simone Burbeck (writer and creator Sarah Kendall) has it all: a rich husband, a lavish lifestyle, two teenage children (Frazer Hadfield and Maggie Ireland-Jones) in a good school, and no connection whatsoever to her past. Then her husband dies in a sex-and-drugs-and-booze-and-more-drugs session, and his lawyer (Robert Webb) reveals the lavish lifestyle was funded by massive debts so she’ll have to sell everything to pay them off. The only option left is to move back home – home being on the other side of the world where they haven’t heard from her in twenty years and still call her Sammy Cooper.
The first sign that Frayed is on the right track is that the husband’s over-the-top comedy death isn’t played entirely for laughs. There’s pubic lice, petrol sniffing and an 80s-era mobile phone stuck where the sun doesn’t shine, but there’s also just enough lingering affection shown by Simone (and a scene-stealing cameo from UK comedy fixture Kerry Godliman as the woman with him when he died) to suggest this is a series where the comedy and drama will co-exist rather than veering wildly from one to the other.
Back in Newcastle (which she valiantly tries to persuade her kids is a northern suburb of Sydney), the totally broke Simone – Sammy to everyone from her past – moves back in with her twelve years sober mum, Jean (Kerry Armstrong), only to find her brother Jim (Ben Mingay) is still living there too. The brother-sister relationship instantly drops back to the level of making rude gestures behind mum’s back; it’s both funny and touchingly real.
Newcastle itself is not portrayed in a good light, even before Sammy’s job hunt provides an opportunity to check out the city’s seedy side up close: a homeless man shitting on the beach because the public toilets “are disgusting” is a highlight. It’s possibly the result of this being an UK / Australian co-production – it’s rare to see an Australian show outright trash a named city (see the rose-coloured halo around 80s Sydney in Les Norton, or Rosehaven’s soft-focus Tasmania).
What fuses the drama and comedy here is the sense of desperation. This isn’t a wacky comedy jaunt home for Sammy Cooper: she doesn’t want to be there, nobody she meets really wants her to be there, and her kids definitely don’t want to be there. The way her new boss and local MP Chris George (George Houvardas) hires her out of twisted high school revenge, then shows her off to her ex, former king of the high school Dan (Matt Passmore), is both insightful character development and a kind of offhand emotional bluntness that Australian comedies – or dramas – rarely reach.
Frayed isn’t perfect: it slows down a lot once it hits Newcastle and Sammy (initially) is the kind of character it takes time to warm to. Almost all the characters are either angry or ditzy; eventually somebody’s going to have to have something going for them. But unlike a lot of dramedies, it seems likely the characters will be given the chance to grow. This feels more like it’s the start of a story than just setting up a situation.
Producer Nicole O’Donohue
Merman in association with Guesswork Television
UK / Australia, 2019, 6 episodes
Premieres October 16 at 9pm on ABC and iView