By Alberto Cox Délano | TV | April 25, 2023 |
By Alberto Cox Délano | TV | April 25, 2023 |
TW: topics of suicide discussed throughout.
Most people in the Western World feel a sense of horror about other people taking their own lives, in the same way they don’t know how to deal with its cousins, capital-G Grief or capital-D Depression. Suicidal ideation is treated as highly contagious and, at the same time, as if you are dealing with a box of nitro. That same discomfort translates to how suicide is portrayed on screen: It either marks a dramatic tonal shift or it becomes the driving tragedy. The same people who are weirded out about suicide, that really don’t want to think about it, would consider the idea of including elements of comedy or levity in a work about suicide as downright heretical. The only appropriate tone is a somber, sorrowful one. This doesn’t help at all, as we keep conceiving suicide and suicidal people as radioactive boxes of things we would really want to put away, instead of dealing with the issues and its entire spectrum of emotions head-on. Worse still, it gives us pieces of shit like 13 Reasons Why.
It is, then, pretty f**king ingenious and brave for Totally Completely Fine, a new Aussie series by Stan and Sundance Now, to tackle the issue as a Comedy-Drama. In many ways, it succeeds.
Created and co-written by Gretel Vella (writer on The Great and Class of ‘07) and based on a real story, the series stars Thomasin McKenzie (brilliant) as Viv Cunningham, a twenty-something Australian whose life is a constant trainwreck: She drinks too much, does the entire Euphoria-range of synthetic drugs, cannot have meaningful or sane relationships, couch surfs through Sydney shitholes and, more recently, in an act of pure Jeremy Clarkson, she accidentally burned down her brother’s vegan food truck with a bacon-scented vape. These are but symptoms of a clinically depressed person. We soon discover that she lost both her parents in a car accident, that she was in the car with them, and that she (just a child then) might have caused the distraction that caused them to veer off. Or maybe she was trying to keep her mum awake. We are only given ambiguous flashbacks, but those flashbacks pester Viv day and night, driving her closer and closer to suicide.
When her grandfather and former guardian dies, she inherits something she believes will turn her life around: A house. It’s a charming mid-century fixer-upper with a breathtaking backyard: The cliffs south of Sydney. That’s where the catch lies, as it a favorite site for people trying to end their lives. Her grandfather had managed to convince over 200 people not to jump, using his kindness and patience. The job has now been passed onto Viv, somebody who lacks in both those departments, and isn’t very convinced about this whole living thing in the first place. However, she seems to be a natural at this, and even before she finds out the truth about the place, she stops runaway bride Amy (a delightful Contessa Treffone) from jumping, whom Viv will reluctantly accept as a roommate, “sidekick” and, ultimately, first best friend.
Totally Completely Fine is not, however, a series featuring a “suicidal person of the week” that Viv must stop. Instead, it’s about Viv’s process in getting over both the things that make her push people away and the things that make her self-centered, so that she can better embrace the task her grandfather left her. This will mean mending bridges with her older brother John (Rowan Witt), a successful but emotionally fossilized person; trying to find a deeper connection than being drinking friends with her middle brother Hendrix (Brandon McClelland), a sensitive family guy with body issues and a stressed marriage, and preventing Amy from falling back with her controlling fiancée. Rounding the cast is Devon Terrell as Dane, her neighbor and a psychologist struggling with control issues and, well… being a virgin after a certain age, and Édgar Vittorino as John’s partner, a kindhearted Colombian EMT. Every character is very well fleshed out, becoming more than just satellites in Viv’s orbit, and they are all played by a gifted cast that can be at once hilarious and moving.
As a bildungsroman of a young woman trying to move away from suicide, Totally Completely Fine works great. But at times, it does feel like the show focuses too much on the parallel plotlines and on Viv’s highs and lows, while not fully exploring the broader picture of suicide that could be brought into the picture by showing us the different characters Viv saves. We see her save two people, and after that, we are told she has saved a total of 15. The series would’ve benefited greatly from getting a glimpse of the many faces of suicidal ideation.
The comedic elements are what elevate the series from the trappings of that other series about suicide I panned on the first paragraph: It makes it realistic. It gives the characters three dimensions by not making them miserable pits of sorrow. They are also chaotic, self-aware (but not in the annoying, MCU-way), and absurd in an endearing way. It helps that, wisely, it does not resort to gallows humor.
There is a lot of heart and a lot of love for unlikeable characters in Totally Completely Fine, but mostly, its tone and brutal honesty about mental health and suicide is a welcome addition to its media depictions. Its only weakness is that it can be unfocused, but hopefully that’s something for a future season.
Totally Completely Fine is currently streaming on AMC+ in the States and Stan on Australia.