Flowers, a new dark British comedy, just debuted on Channel 4 in the UK and makes its US debut on Thursday, May 5. But Seeso1 — the comedy-centric streaming service that will host the series — has partnered with Vox to release the first episode early, exclusively on Vox.com. (When the show officially launches on Seeso, all six of episodes of season one will be available at once.)
Seeso is owned by NBC-Universal, which is an investor in Vox Media.
Let's be upfront here: Flowers is not going to appeal to everyone.
The show is frequently intentionally polarizing; it features wild tone shifts and alternates between broad comedy and bleak drama, seemingly at random. Even its fans will occasionally feel that it is testing the limits of their affections.
But I found Flowers worthwhile all the same. Even when it was pushing my buttons, it was doing so in interesting ways. I've only seen half of the season so far, but it increasingly seems like all of its off-putting elements are part of an intentional design to see how far the show can push viewers while still making them feel empathy for its bruised and battered characters.
That's why I hopped on the phone with Flowers' creator, the British writer and actor Will Sharpe, to discuss three of my favorite things about the show.
1) The storybook visuals look like nothing else on TV
Flowers' imagery primarily features idyllic farms and charming British folk. Its interiors are shot to make everything look cozy, quaint, and a little rustic. And yet everything is just a little faded, as if its best days are long behind it.
That's appropriate, given that the series's protagonist is a children's book illustrator who's struggling with mental health issues. It's a fairy tale gone to seed, after real life intruded.
And it's surprisingly gorgeous to look at, transcending its "Wes Anderson's aesthetic heads to TV" roots to look more like the '70s comedies of director Hal Ashby (who's also fond of making comedies about dark, despairing topics and was a huge influence on Anderson).
Everything about the look of Flowers was carefully fussed over, says Sharpe. "That meant a little bit, occasionally, of stylization, but we also wanted it to feel quite messy as well," he told me. "In particular, [the director of photography and I] were both keen to try to make use of darkness."
That's reflected in the way the show's interiors are filled with haze and smoke, which Sharpe says are intended to give everything a "murky and atmospheric" appearance.
2) The subject matter gets surprisingly poignant
For lots of viewers, the first 10 minutes of Flowers will be a dealbreaker. It opens with protagonist Maurice Flowers attempting to kill himself (and failing), then pivots immediately into incredibly broad comedy (complete with an over-the-top caricature of an Asian man who seems placed in the show at random to court offense — and is played by Sharpe himself).
But this vacillation between dark moments and big comedy is key to Sharpe's idea of what Flowers can be. (He described the show to me in terms of a scene that he said was "heartbreaking" but also "disturbingly funny.") And the show grows more assured in its approach to this tonal balance with every episode, especially as Maurice's struggles are reflected in the lives of his family members.
"I thought it was important never to make fun of the characters's pain, but to always try to [also] find the humor in the situation," Sharpe says.
3) Julian Barratt and Olivia Colman are a killer acting duo
If you've never seen the gloriously funny sketch comedy series The Mighty Boosh, you are likely unaware of Barratt's talents, but Flowers reveals that he can make you laugh and bring weight to more dramatic material. He plays Maurice, and his ability to find the pain in this seemingly happy man is key to Flowers' success.
Colman is more familiar to American audiences, but primarily for her dramatic turns in series like Broadchurch and The Night Manager. Her résumé is full of wickedly funny turns on British sitcoms, including Peep Show and Rev., and Flowers lets her be just a little bit over-the-top as Maurice's wife, Deborah, something she manages quite well.
If not everything about Flowers works all of the time, Barratt and Colman always do, and as the series progresses, it slowly but surely starts turning toward the pair as its true north. Just watch that first episode above: The two actors clearly know exactly who these characters are, even when chaos is erupting all around them.