Theories of the Leisure Class

What's so funny about being rich and idle?

Only on British television could you have a 12-years-old series that is only in its fifth season. But thanks to the decidedly different way the Beeb does business, that's what you get with series five of Absolutely Fabulous. Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy (Joanna Lumley) have been snorting, smoking, drinking, and hitting their chins on the next rung of the social ladder since 1992, yet show creator Saunders has managed to keep their brand of moneyed selfishness relevant through the bubbling Nineties and the Aughties aftermath. You can catch series five on Oxygen, of all networks. This venue is surprising if only because the channel's other signature foray into humor, the prank program Girls Behaving Badly, features a timidity of spirit and much nervous tittering. It makes a fascinating contrast to the way AbFab's Eddy and Pats act out, with the loopy greed and cruelty of Ayn Rand after a diet-pill overdose.

People behave terribly on AbFab; they always have. This is the show where Patsy once sold Edina's daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha) into slavery, only to have Edina pick up the burka-swaddled girl with nary a raised eyebrow. Patsy loathes the levelheaded Saffron, not just because she's the futile voice of reason and manners on the show, but because she's Edina's child and therefore has some claim--however tenuous--on her mother's attention. The show's original joke was that teenage Saffy was the responsible adult while her mother Eddy was the reckless teen. But five seasons and 12 years of letting characters age in real time have revealed a deeper and funnier joke: Edina has been a parent all along, but she's been mothering Patsy.

When she tries to parent both--as she did in the episode "Birthin'," where the homeopathy-loving Saffron goes into labor all over Patsy's award-presenting outfit--the result is a truly wretched display of alleged humanity. Patsy manages to ignore the woman in labor next to her to sulk, "I'm not happy!" and spends the rest of the episode drinking heavily and hissing, "I hate that baby!" That is, until she crafts a plan to sell it to Hollywood televangelists. Meanwhile, Saffron is trying to give birth while staving off her mother's attempts to comfort her: "Do you want candles in the room, a little music? Drugs, medical intervention, heroin?? WHAT DO YOU WAAANNT?!?!?!"

Patsy's shellacked updo and clenched-jaw delivery have morphed from Ivana parody to camp ne plus ultra as she ossifies into middle-age denial. Yet it's possible that Edina may be even less forgivable as that most loathsome of types, the undeserving rich. She evidently made some money in PR, but mostly lives off the generous alimony of two ex-husbands and a lot of shameless begging for fabulous freebies. She is rich, useless, and incapable of contributing to society. You wouldn't want Edina contributing to society, however, because she'd leave it in a smoking crater. Every episode staggers along the same arc: Eddy and Pats attempt to wrench some personal gain from the fad of the moment, it all goes horribly wrong, and they emerge humiliated but absolutely unschooled in the larger lessons of life.

In fact, if you tote up all the failures these two have collectively endured, they'd be dead, either by their own hand owing to existential despair, or by someone else's owing to homicidal rage. Here, however, they always merrily lurch on to the next misadventure, none the sadder or wiser. It's farce at its finest.

 

AbFab's blithe absurditygoes a long way toward explaining why I adore the show while another comedy about the social disasters of the undeserving rich makes me clench my teeth. I'm referring to Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO. Yes, I'm aware that I'm the only person in America who hates the show. I'm okay with that. I don't like Curb because it's swapped farce for the comedy of the everyday, a conceit that worked with The Larry Sanders Show because there were clear consequences for people's appalling behavior. Yet Larry David's fictional life only demonstrates that life is unfair and getting more so by the year. No matter how miserably the man behaves he's always going to have opportunities he doesn't deserve, money he won't lose, and a wife who won't leave him.

There may be an element of class-consciousness in my dislike for the show: When the subject of money comes up in most comedies, we're usually invited to laugh with the blue-collar guy and at the rich one. Yet in the tradition of Seinfeld's contempt for every waiter, shopkeeper, and delivery boy in New York, David's latest creation, Curb, more or less subverts the idea that the wealthy are there for our derision. Rather, we're all here for David's.

I think AbFab is more subversive in its own way: The show questions why useless people get rich by catering to our shallowest impulses. Taking solace in their comic misery is a deep pleasure.

 
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