Made in Chelsea is totes postmodern

What is the point of it all, it seems to ask. Why was this even made?

There's a certain uneasy, shifting quality at the centre of Made in Chelsea that reminds one of the later work of Samuel Beckett.

Like last season when Hugo cheated on Millie with Rosie, and we totally hated Rosie, and then in the last episode it turned out that it had happened before Hugo and Millie were even properly together, so it wasn’t Rosie’s fault at all. Now we like Rosie again. It’s like, what even is the truth?

And as characters wax and wane, struggling against the imposed narrative, story-arcs change course, pleating and reforming around them like so many unsuitable bikinis in a hot tub. Last season, for example, Spencer was ok; this season, Spencer is a dick.

And throughout, the series plays with themes of silence and repetition - taking a figure of speech, toying with it, manipulating it, interrogating it, and finally, killing it. “Someone I used to have familial relationships with”says Spencer, of the girl he slept with whilst going out with Louise. “He did it to shoot me in the foot” says Spencer, of the friend who ratted him out. The word "offensive", too. You can't really use that any more, not since Spencer used it. And "totes". "Totes" is completely over.

But the postmodern roots go deeper. Often, characters will step from the very frame of the plot to talk to Heat magazine, or do photoshoots for FHM. We are, they seem to insist, truly in a twilight world, where things are never quite what they seem. Who is the mysterious "Professor Green", for example, and why are there so many, many drawing rooms? Posh shoe-shops, too, are an odd but ever present visual motif. Stamped, as it were, into the viewer’s consciousness, forever.

Stalked by meaninglessness and despair, Made in Chelsea’s characters plead for release, picking at the very roots of what it means to be human. "You are so misunderstood" Binky says to Lucy in episode 3 season 4. "I know" she replies "I'm like not a robot?"

But under these themes resound deeper metaphysical questions, always left unanswered. What is the point of it all? Who are these people? Why was this even made?

Francis fairly fit though. Totes would.

Millie Mackintosh, Made in Chelsea star. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Show Hide image

The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue