I've been thinking about the concept of "guilty pleasures." I've got some: ZZ Top, The Purge movies, Conan the Barbarian, "Weird Al" Yankovich, and Mario Kart, to name a few. And yet, what does "guilty pleasure" really mean? That there are some things we like that we have to feel bad about, because the object of our affection is clearly stupid, or unworthy of our cultural status, or just self-evidently bad. Now, I can justify my love for just about anything: ZZ Top is the quintessential bar band who were in the right place at the right time with the right music videos; director John Milius' casting of language-challenged Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan was so inspired it eventually won the actor the governorship of California; "Weird Al" is a lyrical genius. But I still have the notion that I should feel bad about the fact that I want to zap annoying motorists with a turtle shell when I get behind the wheel IRL. Maybe life is too short to worry about what you're supposed to like, and so you should just like the stuff you like—unless you like Michael Bay movies, in which case you should be ashamed of yourself.
The British TV series Absolutely Fabulous definitely falls in my "guilty pleasures" category. The tipsy adventures of PR guru Edina Monsoon and magazine editor Patsy Stone, played by Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, gained a sizable American audience when Comedy Central imported the show in the mid-1990s. Like the best British comedy, it was simultaneously brainy and raunchy, pushing boundaries of good taste and decorum while skewering every facet of British life. But the first butt of Saunders and Lumley's jokes were always themselves. Eddie and Patsy are entitled monsters from the English id. Like their American counterparts in '90s cringe comedy, Seinfeld, they never miss the opportunity to make the worst decision possible in every social situation. Saunders, who did the lion's share of the writing alongside her sketch comedy partner Dawn French, took devilish pleasure wallowing in the shallow end of fashion and celebrity. Lumley drew on her experiences as a former model and Bond girl to imbue Patsy with just the right amount of contemptuous consumption of drugs and men. Making Eddie's daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha) the only reasonable and responsible person on the show was a little bit of genius, because it allowed the eternally indecisive Eddie to vacillate between her daughter and best friend and push the limits of what audiences would consider a sympathetic character. Eddie's always trying to do better, but Patsy pulls her back into the Champagne vortex.
- Joanna Lumley (left) and Jennifer Saunders are still guilty of being Absolutely Fabulous.
The film adaptation seems to come too late. The show's officially been off the air for the better part of a decade, appearing only for occasional Very Special Episodes, including one centered around the 2012 London Olympics. Amazingly, Saunders, Lumley, and the crew pick up right where they left off. Eddie and Patsy are still living the high life, even though they're both blatantly broke. Eddie thinks she's got a big ticket book deal brewing, but when her assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks) transcribes her manuscript as "blah blah blah," it's back to the drawing board.
Meanwhile, at a disastrous fashion show, Patsy learns that supermodel Kate Moss is looking for a new PR person, so she and Eddie plot to to beat rival relations rep Claudia Bing (Celia Imrie) to the punch by using her granddaughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) as a lure at a glitzy party. Predictably, the plan is a fiasco that ends with Moss falling into the Thames and Eddie and Patsy fleeing a murder rap to Cannes, France.
Saunders' dialogue is as dense and witty as ever, and she gets much mileage out of the now-60-year-old Eddie's oblivious out-of-touchness. Patsy's late-game subplot riffing on Some Like It Hot is particularly fun and keeps the momentum from getting too bogged down by the endless parade of celebrity cameos, including Moss, Jon Hamm, Gwendoline Christie, and Rebel Wilson as a mouthy flight attendant who would be a good candidate for a recurring role if the show were to go on. The movie suffers from mandatory fan service moments requiring the insertion of every minor character who ever appeared on the show, and the predictable pitfalls of expanding a half-hour comedy to feature length, but Saunders and BBC director Mandie Fletcher navigate those obstacles better than Sex and the City or The X-Files films. If you're considering coming in cold, you're probably better off binging on the '90s heyday of the show instead, but if AbFab's already on your list of not-so-guilty pleasures, you'll find a lot to like.