In Am I Being Unreasonable? Daisy May Cooper has made a significant departure from the tragicomic documentary style of her earlier series, This Country. The title is taken from a category of threads hosted by the online community Mumsnet, in which mothers consult their peers to ascertain whether their actions and reactions are justified a given scenario. At first I took the choice of title to signify a sitcom powered by a fairly light, comic take on maternal politics. In fact, the title is grimly, deliciously ironic, and the series really belongs to a hazily defined offshoot of British black comedy.
It’s possible Am I Being Unreasonable? is a manifestation of something quite special—I can discern the dim outline of an emerging new wave. This class of comedy drama is mostly subdued, occasionally frenetic, and nudges at a kind of nuanced profundity, like a shark headbutting a dinghy. We saw a proto-glimmer of it long ago in The League of Gentlemen, although it was masked in overt surrealism, and it hangs around throughout Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. It’s painful. It’s quietly earnest, playing at flippancy. Whatever this thing is, it seems to carry a distinctly British flavour. And yet the name that keeps repeating itself to me is so profoundly American.
With this in mind, I am going to probe my initial response to Am I Being Unreasonable? Specifically, that it carries a whiff of David Lynch.
The story is (spoiler alert) that of Nic, a lonely mother of one in an affluent Cotswolds village. Some years earlier, she married a man she didn’t like very much, and on her wedding day received a surprise declaration of love from his brother. Tragically, in the course of a long affair, the lover/ brother in law dies horribly after getting one of his coat buttons caught in a train door. Nic suffers flashbacks, loneliness and paranoia against a suffocating backdrop of narrow country lanes and school gate politics. She somehow powers on, presenting a funny and drily cynical facade. When the kind but obsessive Jen appears on the school run, she becomes the object of Jen’s fixation. The thing is, we all kind of want to be Nic’s mate. She’s very funny, almost dreadful, and, notwithstanding the occasional screaming hallucination, seemingly doesn’t give a flying fuck.
Over the course of six episodes, we see her story unfold, and then unravel. We learn of her unhappy husband’s serial philandering, her remarkably mature and creative nine-year-old son murdering the cat, Jen’s covert recording of conversations; even these problems pale into insignificance when we learn that Nic’s heartbreak has turned her into a murderously unreliable narrator.
This is not the sort of thing we would normally think of as Lynchian. The word calls to mind low lights and whimsical Americana, or low lo-fi camera work and women in trouble, or maybe even crude imitations of his more experimental work. Interviewed for the David Lynch semi-autobiography, Room to Dream, Twin Peaks actress Kimmy Robertson comments on how clumsy these imitations can be. She laments that in the doldrums of Season 2, a lack of supervision reduced “Lynchian” filmmaking to sticking a kaleidoscope in front of the camera. Dark diners, endangered dames, and philistine attempts at experimentalism are definitely facets of his legacy, but clearly there’s more to it. Am I Being Unreasonable? contains a little of the darkness and danger, but this doesn’t quite account for my sense of a deeper connection.
Lynch’s influence on TV and film is undeniably widespread and well established. Just as Kafkaesque has become an oft used (perhaps overused) component of the critic’s lexicon, so too has Lynchian. This is a comparison that would likely flatter the director—Lynch is on the record expressing admiration for the Czech story writer, whose relatively modest oeuvre has inspired countless readers and artists, and bleeds into our consciousness every time we find ourselves lost in shadows, consumed by gnawing paranoia, or navigating bureaucracy. Arguably, Lynch enjoys a similar status, operating deep in our imaginations. Given this psychologically embedded sense of the “Lynchian,” how do we comprehensively define its qualifying attributes? How do we explain our sense that something is Lynchian if it doesn’t really look like a David Lynch film?
There’s something significant about the way Am I Being Unreasonable? defies easy classification. I’ve always been impressed by Lynch’s knack for making unclassifiable films. He enjoys a confounding reputation for both virtuosity and versatility. The way he brings his idiosyncratic vision to a wide range of productions has allowed him to saturate the mainstream without being carried away by it. It’s hard to think of anyone else who has successfully walked this tightrope between being instantly recognisable, and ultimately difficult to pin down.
And so with Am I Being Unreasonable? It’s evidently black comedy, and “comedy thriller” has also been suggested as a label, but I think this fails to capture its haunted feel. What strikes me is that, if there are any big laughs to be had, they are not only dark but unnerving. If black comedies curate a kind of gallows humour intended to neuter the darkness, Am I Being Unreasonable? is more like a stand-up comedian hallucinating ghosts on stage, but carrying on regardless. The comedy isn’t the driver—it just settles into all the cracks between the horror.
There are also some readily identifiable elements that resemble specific Lynch motifs, such as the darkness that seems to pervade Nic’s well appointed, modern house. In Lost Highway, Fred and Renee live in a strangely shadowy, minimalist home. I also wonder if Viv, the spiritualist cleaner, played for laughs by Juliet Cowan, hides in plain sight as a messenger warning us that there is in fact something horrible going on at home. Then there’s the teenage couple, witnesses lifted from the crime scene, who seem to follow Nic around. The use of secondary messenger characters in touch with another realm is a familiar item from Lynch’s playbook.
I think the Lynch smell is strongest in the story itself, although it should be acknowledged that some of what we think of as a typical Lynch story has its origins in literature. Mulholland Drive is arguably a retelling of Lost Highway, which was co-written by novelist Barry Gifford. The whole concept owes a debt to writers like Susan Sontag, who use the dreams of their protagonists as primary narratives, with elements of their reality continually interwoven, seeping into the dream. It’s also possible that stories related by unreliable narrators, as in the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, have provided inspiration for the notion of a dreamer in denial. Lynch has however been profoundly influential in developing these ideas into a signature visual language and narrative structure.
In Am I Being Unreasonable? we see an unreliable protagonist at war with the disturbing truth. While in this instance we have no reason to believe Nic’s life after the event is a dream, we see her living in a desperate and hallucinatory state of denial. The inclusion of events mirroring the past, and seemingly innocuous items acquiring new significance, suggests Daisy May Cooper’s is a mind that latches enthusiastically onto connections, allegory and metaphor, and likes to blend them into conventional storytelling. Take, for example, the family pet, Mr Miaowgee, whose coat seals his fate—to die horribly at the hands of someone who loves him, behind a glass door, just like Alex. We see Nic’s obsession with her coat driving her to behave erratically. It remains unclear whether the superstitious cleaner is actually right about its bad energy. Nor do we know whether Nic is keeping Alex’s coat toggle hidden in the pocket because she doesn’t know how to safely dispose of the evidence, or due to a kind of twisted sentimentality.
If indeed the Lynch connection concerns the type of story being told, is noteworthy that Am I Being Unreasonable? differs from much of Lynch’s work in one important regard: the way the story is told. Lynch’s narrative distortions and oblique symbolism are marks of his discombobulated, challenging method of storytelling. Am I Being Unreasonable? serves up an unambiguous ending (satisfyingly, it involves a shocking twist transmogrified into a denouement by Daisy May Cooper’s face in the closing shot), meaning it humbly sacrifices any pretence of difficulty. It contains a Lynch-worthy tale, but in its execution we merely follow the unreliable protagonist at a distance. Lynch prefers to inhabit the chaos of unreliable minds, and would likely tell the tale from the fractured, deluded perspective of Nic. He would have us piecing this story together for ourselves from a battered biscuit tin of mismatched jigsaw pieces and shards of kintsugi pottery.
I suspect Lynch would also have struggled to cast a female lead like Daisy May Cooper. In telling women’s stories, Lynch can display a tender sympathy for women in trouble, but his compassion is inextricably linked to his sensuality, particularly if they play leading roles. Drunk, flatulent, and unladylike, Daisy May Cooper’s Nic is far too honest and unglamorous a portrayal of the character to be Lynchian.
If David Lynch has truly achieved adjectival status, it’s reasonable to ask whether his influence acts primarily upon artists, or on audience perceptions of their art. That I see his influence everywhere might say more about his effect on me than anything else. However, I can’t help but wonder what television, film, theatre, literature and music would look like without his long shadow cast upon them. When an artist really enters the culture at a deeper level, nods and homages become less conscious, and something of the spirit of the artist becomes endemic. It also mutates. Swab any creative person’s nostrils and it’s there in some form or other.
I think it’s fair to say that Am I Being Unreasonable? does contain some kind of Lynchian variant, and its spirit is driving a quiet revolution on the dark sides of the minds of British comedians. I’m not sure where it’s all heading, but I’m looking forward to seeing what it brings forth.