In the superb fifth episode of Flack, Pop TV’s new imported drama, Bradley Whitford plays Calvin Cooper, a charismatic, troublesome actor flying from New York to London. Sitting next to him in his business-class pod is Robyn (Anna Paquin), a publicist who’s trying to rein in Calvin’s destructive behavior. As the flight waits for takeoff, Calvin hits on other passengers, sets off the bathroom smoke detectors, and genially grills Robyn about her life. Then he gets an unexpected voicemail from the police. The flight promptly takes off, leaving Calvin and Robyn stranded on a seven-hour flight while they try to do damage control on a potential scandal that Calvin describes as “about as not good as you can fucking get.”
It’s the kind of bottle episode that earns this name, with a setup that makes everything happening feel tense and claustrophobic. Flack presents Calvin’s confession to Robyn in silence, so the exact nature of his transgressions—involving material on a laptop that his housekeeper has taken for repairs—is unclear. Robyn, ruthlessly efficient when it comes to crisis communications, goes into emergency mode, trying to mastermind a solution from 35,000 feet without the assistance of her cellphone or her colleagues or her cocaine. But her prolonged enclosure in the air gives her too much time to think about the dynamics of her job, and to wonder: When is something too dirty to clean up?
There are a handful of these revelatory moments in Flack, a six-episode show that’s part Veep, part The Devil Wears Prada, and part Scandal, with a lot of Britcomic nihilism thrown into the mix. Set in London, the show revolves around Robyn’s job fixing celebrity messes, burying real scandals under fake ones, and spinning atrocious antics into tabloid gold. The first scene sees her gamely performing CPR on a closeted, superstar soccer player’s underage, overdosed hookup; after reviving him, Robyn snorts a mystery line on her way out of the hotel room to reward herself for a job well done. Later, it’s revealed that Robyn’s troubled mother ended her own life a year prior, and that Robyn’s gift for tidying up other people’s messes stems from an insatiable need to fix things, to be in control.
One day there might be a television show about a complicated woman with a morally problematic profession whose personal life isn’t a train wreck. Flack, however, is not that show. Like Homeland, it seems stuck on the idea that only a hopelessly damaged woman could do such grim work, which the series itself then contradicts by making Robyn’s efficiency in the face of her onerous tasks seem oddly satisfying. Flack’s ideas about women are sometimes tediously rote, and its writing, while snappy and caustically funny, tends to rely on long, Sorkinian expository monologues that always feel overly theatrical on television. (Oliver Lansley, who created the show, is an actor and a playwright.) And yet the series also touches on subjects and themes that feel vital and underplayed in drama right now. Like: What compels people to do awful things? Does the nature of celebrity itself create monsters? Is genuine rehabilitation for people in the public eye even possible?
In its best moments, Flack is a bleak workplace comedy studded with talent. Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) revels in her role as Robyn’s boss at the PR shop Mills Paulson—she plays a monstrous, serpentine bully in the Miranda Priestly mold who spells out her agency’s moral compass in no uncertain terms. (“I don’t care if you lie,” she hisses, “or get innocent people sent to prison, or go round kicking away the crutches of polio-ridden children. As long as you’re in control.”) Robyn is the good cop to Lydia Wilson’s irresistibly obnoxious Eve, a glacial blonde with geometrically defined bangs and flawless one-liners. Rebecca Benson plays Melody, a sweet, unpaid intern at Mills Paulson whose naivété inevitably throws Robyn’s cynicism into sharper relief.
Outside the office, Flack engages in the most exasperating kinds of story lines about women written by men, namely those involving fertility and reproduction. Pregnancy, babies, and the anxieties around both make up the single most repetitive theme in the series, with Robyn’s status as a 30-something woman apparently superseding any other characteristics she might have. Her sister, Ruth (the excellent Genevieve Angelson), has two kids at 29, and Ruth’s unglamorous, staid lifestyle is supposed to make Robyn look like more of a hot mess by comparison. It’s the kind of false binary (pick one life or the other) that feels both tired and counterproductive at this point, not least because Ruth’s stifling existence only ends up making the challenges of Robyn’s toxic job seem more interesting.
Episode by episode, Flack explores the various crests and troughs of celebrity antics, and how reliably they make for good story lines both on television and in the tabloids. There’s the beloved chef who can’t stop cheating on his wife. The comedian under fire for making transphobic jokes. The 17-year-old singer trying to revive her career with a manufactured sex tape. The “natural” beauty blogger who’s secretly had a face lift. In the fifth episode, Calvin points out to Robyn that airlines are mandated to have ashtrays in bathrooms even though people aren’t allowed to smoke, because they’ll unfailingly try to anyway. “Such,” he says, “is the inevitability of human weakness.” But with stars, the show seems to wonder, is it really inevitable? Or is the elaborate media ecosystem that’s been constructed over centuries set up to reward certain types of personalities, and—in turn—certain kinds of behavior?
That Flack is set in England, a country whose tabloids engage in the kinds of seamy schemes that rival anything they themselves publish, seems apt. Many of the show’s best jokes involve British cultural references, which slightly complicates its mass appeal. (As Robyn placates the cheated-on wife of the priapic celebrity chef, the woman sets out her terms for staying with him in a flat northern accent: “Six months. I want a cookbook. And I wanna do Strict-leh.”) The gleeful immorality of the journalists Robyn tangoes with reinforces the idea that the system itself is rotten from within, and that anyone mired in it for too long gets implicated. Robyn has her red lines. But by the time she reaches them, Flack insinuates, she might already have gone past the point of no return.