The return of "Absolutely Fabulous"

Edina and Patsy, living casualties of the '60s, face life in a post-millennium, "Sex and the City" world.

Published November 15, 2001 11:51PM (EST)

Nov. 12, 2001

Dear Diary:

There's a scene from an early "Absolutely Fabulous" episode in which Eddy, the shambling, lost Baby Boomer mom, remarks to her daughter Saffron, who couldn't care less, "You know, Patsy used to date Keith Moon."

To which Patsy, Eddy's best friend and the realist of the two, replies, "Well, sort of. I woke up underneath him in a hotel room once."

It might not have been love, exactly, but it was something, they think, whatever it was. And their proximity to it, even if only in their minds, makes them important and fabulous.

"Who dies in their own vomit these days?" Patsy asks.

"Nobody!" shouts Eddy, bloated with indignant pride.

"Absolutely Fabulous," which returned to Comedy Central Monday night with the first of six episodes after a four-year hiatus, has the distinction of being the only show about the Me generation to suggest that most of its members weren't so much leading the revolution as maladroitly mouthing the words to the eponymous song in the back seat of a Volkswagen, like characters out of a badly dubbed Japanese monster movie, before falling out face-first onto the pavement. Like most people who look back on the '60s with a sense of proprietary pride, Eddy and Patsy were never integral to the scene, despite their continued and desperate efforts. The self-involved, celebrity-obsessed world that was set in motion in their youth drones on, like a tedious, never-ending party, and Eddy and Patsy -- always the star-fuckers, never the stars -- are still trying to crash it, osteoporosis and menopause be damned.

For those who managed to miss it the first three times around (the show had three six-episode seasons in 1992, 1994 and 1996 and has been in heavy rotation ever since on various cable channels), "Ab Fab" follows the misadventures of Edina "Eddy" Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders, who also writes the show), a chain-smoking, champagne-guzzling, pill-popping, twice-divorced 40ish publicist in too-sizes-too-small Burberry (formerly Lacroix); and her best friend Patsy "Pats" Stone (Joanna Lumley), a promiscuous, desiccated Ivana Trump look-alike in her 50s, who supposedly works as a fashion magazine editor and has eaten nothing but a single potato chip since 1974. Saffy (Julia Sawalha) is Eddy's dour, purportedly dumpy daughter, a premature nag who has spent her joyless life mothering her mother while fending off insults from her rival and arch-nemesis Patsy. (Patsy's first impulse, on finding out that Edina was pregnant a quarter of a century ago, was to dramatically demand a knitting needle.)

In an upcoming episode, Saffy pens a tell-all play about her childhood called "Self-raising Flower," and hires a fat actress to play her mother. Eddy, in turn, threatens to confront her about it on Ricki Lake.

Obviously, not a lot has changed for Patsy and Edina, the world's most unevolved humans, since we last saw them -- except that they keep getting older and the anti-aging technology keeps getting better. Within the first few minutes of the first new episode, Eddy is a riot of emotional activity -- talking about embarking on yet another new weight-loss program ("In three weeks I want to be on the cusp of organ failure"), faking her way through various yoga poses ("Pretty soon I'll be able to kiss my own ass from both directions"), skating across the kitchen on an adult mini-scooter and putting in her daily call to her "life coach," who tells her her goal for the day is to "have a great idea and write a pop song" -- all the while obsessing about meeting Madonna and Sting and getting famous. Meanwhile, Patsy has shot her face full of "Paralox," an industrial-strength Botox-like toxin that leaves her face so stiff and expressionless she has to feel for her lips to plug a cigarette through them.

Saffy and Eddy's loopy mother, known only as "Gran" (June Whitfield), dutifully continues to symbolize Eddy's generation's frustration with their parents and disappointment in their offspring. No matter how out of it Eddy and Patsy were and still are, they have no patience for those who don't even try to be in it, whatever "it" is. But it's no longer possible to be totally out of it in a world where hipness is all but enforced and everything and everyone is "branded." That even Saffy and Gran are hopping on their own trends is a new source of irritation for Eddy. Gran now stops by the house to pick up her "e's" (emails) and shop online; she calls herself a "silver surfer." Saffy, whom Edina accuses of "deliberately overeducating herself out of the possibility of employment," is angling for a job as a sort of ambassador of British arts abroad.

Eddy has expanded into television production (because "one job is so last millennium,"), but her new partner in the venture, Katy Grin (played by Jane Horrocks, who also continues to play the part of Eddy's incomprehensible, ditzy assistant, Bubbles), keeps getting more face time on the air. That other people might be getting famous while they remain stuck on the Z-list is a source of endless consternation for Pats and Eddy, who are capable of envying the attention even a disease might take away from themselves. (Invited to a "Celebrity Fun Run for Anyone Who Can't Form a Scab," Patsy remarks disdainfully, "Every abnormal skin cell now has its own premiere.")

This time around, the antagonism between boomers Eddy and Pats and the older and younger Gran and Saffy is more pointed and their antipathy more palpable. Gran dogs Eddy about being fat as a child; she deliberately annoys her daughter by pretending not to know about things that "everyone" should know about, like the difference between salsa dancing and doing the "guacamole."

Meanwhile, Saffy is desperately trying to get out from under Eddy's roof, but her continued presence in the house, along with her mounting bitterness, make her seem sadder than she was as a teenager, when she had no choice but to suffer Eddy and Patsy's abuse. That Saffy's new job may require her to dine with Tony and Cherie Blair at the Ivy prompts Eddy's scornful derision of "the new PC, flagless, sexless, OK, anodyne, milky-white British New Labor brand" of glamour. On "Ab Fab," there are no viable alternatives. Everyone's a chump.

Still, despite having been universally declared "older and sadder," it can also be argued that the "Ab Fab" girls just get more fabulous with age. There's something heartening about seeing Edina wedge her sausagelike self through the bathroom window of a nightclub where Twiggy has forgotten to put her name on the list, and then casually sell drugs to the woman in the stall, who demands to know if she's an "It girl." ("What do you have to be to be an "It girl?" Eddy asks her. "I don't know ... You have to be an 'it!'" "Oh yeah," Eddy mumbles, "then definitely.") Ditto with Patsy insistently putting the moves on a guy so terrified he calls security.

The most fabulous thing about Patsy and Eddy is that the one thing they don't allow themselves to be defined by is their age or by other people's perceptions of them. When a young girl marches past a velvet rope that is keeping her from getting in the club, Eddy shouts, "I know her mother!" with not an iota of shame. In next week's episode, Patsy and Eddy come home after moshing at a Marilyn Manson concert wearing "Bigger Than Satan" T-shirts, to find that Saffy has hired a hot, young gardener (played by Crispin Bonham-Carter). Eddy, who hasn't had sex since around the last time Patsy ate a meal and now plans to, complains to Patsy about her lack of "pelvic floor muscles," saying, "You haven't had kids. I've had two heads through mine." Patsy's reply: "Mine's more a one-way system. I can still blow smoke rings through mine."

Maybe it has something to do with so much American comedy using women primarily as decorative straight men, but it is precisely Patsy and Eddy's grotesqueness that makes them lovable and supremely cool. After "Roseanne," American TV sitcom heroines have only gotten thinner, cuter and better-dressed -- even if they are ostensibly married to obese UPS deliverymen and live in Queens. American versions of "Ab Fab" have been assayed before and abandoned. The short-lived "High Society" suffered from terminal sitcom-y remove, and "Cybill," which was supposedly modeled on the British hit, tempered Christine Baranski with an "accessible" Cybill Shepherd and her gorgeous, fashionably sullen teenage daughter. Even Roseanne herself tried and failed to produce a version of "Ab Fab," as ABC ultimately balked at the characters' unseemly behavior.

If any American show that has been influenced by "Ab Fab" has succeeded, it's HBO's megahit "Sex and the City." (Of course, HBO is a pay cable channel and can broadcast what it wishes.) But while the "Sex" girls may have some bad habits, they are pretty much limited to one per customer. Carrie can smoke, Miranda can bitch, the supersexed Samantha may approximate "Ab Fab" levels of parody; and the four will continue to grapple with what in their world constitute "problems." On "SATC," smoking never leads to coughing, drinking never leads to drunkenness, outlandish outfits never look anything but perfect on Sarah Jessica Parker's dancer's body. It is an axiom of the show that Carrie will never split her seams and Samantha will never repel a 20-year old hunk.

And the four women will never stop being paragons of skinny, groomed, spike-heeled civility, success and glamour; and they will never live in a dehumanizing world -- like the postwar England the "Ab Fab" women grew up in -- in which one has to reinvent oneself to survive, however ridiculous the results of that process seems now. Reports are that Pats and Eddy will specifically dis "Sex and the City" in a future show; it will be a cry of despair from the two, at four youngsters who do not appreciate that Patsy and Edina's ruin helped built the world through which they glide so happily.

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If America can't produce characters to rival "Ab Fab's" sense of the grotesque, however, it can churn them out in real life. On Nov. 20, Cinemax will air "Fashion Victim: The Killing of Gianni Versace." The documentary weaves together interviews with friends and family of the designer and his killer, Andrew Cunanan -- including such colorful characters as "fashion guru" Malcolm McLaren, "fashion player" Anita Gallo (a falsetto-voiced, sliver-nosed style casualty with oracular pretensions) who "discovered" Versace for America, and weirdo heads of venerable couture houses Alexander McQueen and John Galliano -- spinning a creepy narrative that seems to link the murderer and murderee by some inexorable destiny.

As Joan Juliet Buck, editor of French Vogue, says early on in the film, "Fashion has tremendous power in the absence of any prevailing ideology. Magazines, which are the unlived life, they are the life you're not living but you wish you were living ... They should be called 'longing' magazines." It is a seductive, insidious and destabilizing power capable of transforming a person into a Patsy, an Eddy or an Andrew Cunanan.

The film traces the lives and opposite trajectories of the designer and his killer -- two gay men from humble beginnings with a taste for beauty and lust for the high life -- focusing on the similarities between them and the huge part one's fame and the other's gnawing envy played in the crime. The film demonstrates how Cunanan, with the help of the media, ultimately succeeded in linking his name to Versace's. Cunanan longed to be invited to the party, and once he had outlasted his welcome, became increasingly desperate, put on weight and consumed and sold truckloads of drugs and eventually murdered one of the people most instrumental in creating the post-'60s fantasy world Patsy and Eddy are so desperate to join.



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By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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