Created by Oliver Lansley (Whites), Flack stars Anna Paquin as Robyn, an American PR executive in London. It’s worth quoting the series synopsis because it would seem like a joke otherwise: Robyn’s “an expert at her craft but a complete self-saboteur when it comes to her personal life.” Yes, Flack is a series about a professional woman who’s got her career made in the shade but can’t quite say the same about her personal life.
Once you get past that initial cliché/hurdle, Flack is worth watching. But it doesn’t make things easy.
The first two episodes especially might be from a series that Showtime passed on. You could call Flack a gender-bent Ray Donovan, but the series also features much the same professional badasses behaving badly as House of Lies, Californication, or even Dexter. (I’d mention a series with a female lead—Weeds—but Nancy Botwin was never all that great at her job.) It’s not just a trope. It’s a character template, even a format. The pilot (and second episode) hit every beat you’d expect, from the cocaine snorting to the random quickie with a client everyone tells Robyn not to have (and, of course, has anyway) to the surprise stable boyfriend. (The stable boyfriend isn’t a surprise if you look at the cast list, but the pilot pretends it is at the end of all the introductory bad behavior.)
With Flack, the words “flawed” and “antihero” immediately come to mind, though not in the game-changing way of Killing Eve or Barry. In fact, after the first scene—with the requisite fast-talking and the aforementioned cocaine bump—all I could think about was Courteney Cox’s short-lived FX series, Dirt, only with tabloids traded for PR. Robyn has her shit together more than Cox’s Lucy Spiller, which in this case means having a family and a relationship, but neither of these are anywhere near as interesting as the series seems to think—especially when it comes to their ultimate implosions. As with Paquin’s American accent, there’s no compelling reason for Flack to feature these relationships other than the fact that the format calls for it.
Lansley first conceived the series as a sitcom, for which Britain’s Channel 4 commissioned a pilot in 2013, with Sheridan Smith in the Robyn role and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (coming off her supporting role in The Café) as Robyn’s friend and colleague, Eve—which explains why Flack feels so dated. It may also explain why the hour-long dramedy’s strength is the dark, hard-edged humor of its supporting cast, and not the stakes of the situations in which Robyn finds herself. Re-imagining (or, in this case, un-re-imagining) Flack as an ensemble comedy about the PR world, rather than as a star vehicle for Paquin might fix, or at least lessen, the series’ larger problems.
It’s not as if it’s a lack of dimension that allows the supporting characters to shine compared to Robyn. Eve (Lydia Wilson) is a posh mean girl who regularly zigs where everyone (Robyn included) thinks she will zag, in the process revealing a lot of emotional baggage that the series only teases in favor of focusing on Robyn’s paint-by-numbers personal issues. And while the season briefly suggests that Robyn’s boss, Caroline (Sophie Okonedo, whose one-liners will surely get a YouTube supercut), has much more to bring to the table than quips—as a powerful black woman who has to project a certain image at all times—her scenes are reduced to an oasis in in the series’ desert.
To watch Flack is to pray for Eve and Caroline’s scenes, not because Robyn isn’t a compelling character in her own way, but because these characters tease a much richer story about the PR world, one that hasn’t been seen many times before. (Plus, that very world already offers Flack a solid structure, with its PR-issue-of-the-week format.) Instead, Flack focuses on Robyn’s personal life, in the form of her younger, put-together sister, Ruth (Genevieve Angelson); Ruth’s imbecilic husband, Mark (Rufus Jones); and, of course, the perfect, suffering boyfriend, Sam (Arinzé Kene), who seems to exist exclusively to be the perfect, suffering boyfriend. Robyn’s sponsor, Tom (Marc Warren, reminding people he’s enjoyable outside of The Good Wife), enters into Eve’s orbit, which provides a fascinatingly twisted relationship for the series to tackle, but even that ultimately revolves around Robyn’s dysfunction.
Once the first two episodes get the introductory material out of the way, Flack settles into a decent groove: The third episode frames the insanity of a day in the life of Robyn, Eve, and Caroline’s world in a way that highlights what works best about the series, and the fifth (of six), in which Robyn is faced with the worst in terms of her clients and her profession, is easily the best of the bunch, with the most believable moral conundrum. It’s an acting showcase for Paquin, as she carries the load of the episode (alongside a terrifically repugnant Bradley Whitford), and Flack finally discovers a reason for it to be all about Robyn. I’d bet money that this episode specifically was the one that Lansley envisioned while trying to structure this version of the series.
That said, while the characters do plenty of immoral things to save their clients’ skin or change a narrative, Flack makes clear that Robyn and her colleagues aren’t villains. At least, not for their profession. (And despite several on-screen speeches to the contrary.) The one exception is Melody (Rebecca Benson), a naive intern who reminds the viewer that one can all too easily be consumed by the pressure to join the dark side. Unfortunately, she’s also part of the series’ most mind-numbingly subplot, an upstairs/downstairs relationship with the IT guy that returns us to the series’ central, if not insoluble, problem. Ultimately, Flack believes that we’re concerned with the characters’ personal lives, but mines very little compelling material from the subject, while it focuses less attention on their professional dynamic, which is its foremost strength. Still, it’s worth saying: Paquin, Okonedo, and Wilson are a powerful trio, and they might succeed in reshaping Flack’s narrative yet.
Flack premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Pop TV.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.