By Sarah Osman
Frayed is an Australian/British comedy, and its refreshing sense of gallows humor draws on the pessimism in both cultures.
Frayed, HBO Max.
Throughout the years, there have been countless novels and films about down-on-their-luck adults who are forced to return to their hometown. Along the way, they inevitably come to some sort of reckoning with themselves, their family, or an old lover. The rags-to-riches story, in which a wealthy family suddenly finds themselves destitute and have to learn how to cope, is often lumped into this conventional trope.
HBO Max’s latest import, Frayed, is a mix of both of these plotlines, yet manages to distinguish itself on its own as a dark comedy. This is partly because Frayed isn’t American — it’s an Australian/British comedy, and its refreshing sense of gallows humor draws on the pessimism in both cultures.
The plot of Frayed is fairly simple. In the late ’80s, Sammy Cooper (Sarah Kendall, who also served as the creator and writer of the series) finds her wealthy London life turned upside down after her husband dies in a rather compromising state (it involves a cell phone and a prostitute). To escape the social embarrassment, as well as to deal with the fact that the estate is frozen (her husband had some shady deals going), she decides to take her two children, Lenny (Frazer Hadifeld) and Tess (Maggie Ireland-Jones), back to her hometown of Newcastle, Australia, which is roughly two hours away from Sydney. We quickly learn that Sammy left 20 years ago for greener pastures in London and has not since been in touch with her family. Once in Australia, Sammy is forced to find a job and, of course, reckon with the mistakes of her childhood.
Her family, including her mother, Jean (Kerry Armstrong), and her layabout brother, Jim (Ben Mingay), find Sammy’s presence confounding. They have been hurt by her long absence. She’s also forced to deal with her ex-boyfriend, who happens to be her daughter’s PhysEd teacher. As Sammy tries to navigate these relationships (as well as employment), she isn’t made to experience any large epiphanies or come to love her hometown. This is a story of survival, pure and simple; Frayed suggests that adjustments don’t just happen overnight, especially when reconciling with a challenging past.
The series makes quite a few nods to ’80s Australia; we see a much grittier side to the land down under than what is on display in Neighbours. One of the best running gags is Jim’s obsession with Dynasty; he’s constantly comparing Sammy to the characters on the soap. The costumes and cars are plucked straight from the decade, but at no point does Frayed exploit sentimental ’80s nostalgia, which is a welcome change from the approach of other shows that time machine back decades.
There is not a lot of warm and fuzzy here. Frayed’s humor is bleak. The kids struggle at school, though each manages to make a friend. Bo (Trystan Go) is Leonard’s chain-smoking buddy; they meet in a bathroom while hiding out from bullies. Tess’s friend, Abby (Alexandra Jensen,) initially bullies her, but the two eventually form a friendship based on their interests in studying and lying. Sammy’s co-worker, Fiona (Diane Morgan), perfectly fits Frayed ‘s mordant universe. She offers Sammy peas at random intervals, calls their boss a despot, and is for some reason frustrated with her perfectly kind boyfriend. Sammy and Fiona bond after being forced to clear out a lot and getting stoned while doing so. No matter what Sammy and those around her do, misery seems to follow. But, at times, they do score some small wins, which makes these characters worth rooting for.
Beyond the sardonic humor, Frayed can be surprisingly emotional. No longer drinking, Jean is grieving for her ex-husband while struggling to accept her new boyfriend. Jim has a few sweet shared moments with Lenny, and Tess is given an opportunity to bond with her grandmother for the first time. Sammy is forced to come to terms with what’s she done in the past and to become a better person moving forward.
Frayed may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who appreciate a dash of salt along with their lumps of sugar, it will be surprisingly invigorating.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.