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Television

Review: ‘Flack’ puts a new spin on spin doctors and fallen idols

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Anna Paquin plays an American publicist in London in the Pop series “Flack.”
(Des Willie / Pop)
Television Critic

You may have noticed, if you have been awake at all over the last couple of years, that famous and powerful people can be, to put it nicely, a problem. it has been long known that idols have feet of clay, which is why there is that phrase about idols’ clay feet, but nowadays, the spin doctors have to twirl twice as fast just to stay in the same place.

In “Flack,” a dark farce debuting Thursday on Pop — it’s being called “a limited series,” and can be read as such, although from the shape of it, one suspects it was made with a hope for subsequent seasons — Anna Paquin plays Robyn, an American living in London and working in a high-powered PR firm, an outfit just as moral as it needs to be to protect its own brand.

Practically speaking, she’s a fixer for the imprudent, idiotic or unlucky famous and powerful — but not so powerful that they don’t need her help — which makes “Flack” a little like a gender-swapped “Ray Donovan,” and sometimes more than a little.

Created and written by Oliver Lansley (“Whites”), its six episodes will attract or repel you depending on your tolerance for the antics of the horrible privileged class — or perhaps the privileged horrible class — and watching characters you want to like let you, themselves and one another down. It can annoy you one moment and move you another.

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Robyn, who is uncomfortably good at her job, lives in two worlds, which intermingle at times, each to the detriment of the other. There is her personal business — her relationships with her sister Ruth (Genevieve Angelson), brother-in-law Mark (Rufus Jones) and handsome but ordinary boyfriend Sam (Arinzé Kene). And there is her business business, where we meet her boss, Caroline (Sophie Okonedo), strange and forbidding, and her friend Eve (Lydia Wilson), with whom she shares an office, and a new intern, Melody (Rebecca Benson), a sweet and impressionable lass who may be in over her head.

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Anna Paquin as Robyn, from left, Rebecca Benson as Melody and Lydia Wilson as Eve are publicists on the go in the Pop series “Flack.”
(Des Willie / Pop)

Robyn lies often, on as well as off the job, about where she is, about what she’s doing. She goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and puts on a show of sobriety but does drugs anyway and manages the people in her life much in the way she does her clients, with less satisfying results. (Most people don’t like to feel they’re being managed.) It’s not that her relationships are fake; she seems to want to make things work with Sam, is kind to Melody and not yet past acting on principle, but we are told early on she can’t feel her feelings, and her messes just get messier.

“I’m trying to be good” is something she says more than once. And, mostly, she thinks she means it.

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That she is expected to be on call around-the-clock plays havoc with her life. (“When the phone rings, you answer,” says Caroline. “I don’t care if you’ve been in a car crash, both your arms are broken and you’ve got a mouth full of shattered teeth.”) But she shows no signs of choosing life over work. She isn’t Jean Arthur in a Frank Capra movie.

They go about saving careers and marriages and so on, with complicated plans that typically involve the compromised individual throwing someone, maybe a loved one, under a bus, with some combination of confabulation, prevarication, blackmail, bribery and misdirection. None of it’s pretty, and the clients are, most of them, less than sympathetic. (There are good celebrities in the world too, let it be said, and well-adjusted publicists too.)

The series makes some obvious moves. Anyone who thinks what sounds like sex in the opening moments of the series is going to turn out to be sex has not seen many talking pictures, or is just easy to fool. There is a scene in which someone kisses someone else to avoid being seen. Lies lead to trouble, as they have since before Lucy told Ricky she was just going shopping.

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Anna Paquin as Robyn, left, and Genevieve Angelson as her sister Ruth share a moment on a London bridge in the Pop series “Flack.”
(Oliver Upton / Pop)

If it feels ephemeral finally — the arc of antiheroism bends toward pointlessness — even a road to nowhere may pass through interesting scenery, and there are things to like about “Flack.” Barring a few passages where a thematic point is too explicitly made, Lansley writes believable dialogue; his scenes unfold discursively, taking interesting, meandering paths even to expected ends.

The cast is first-rate and filled out with faces that will be known to followers of British TV, including Alan Davies and Darren Boyd (both from “Whites”), Max Beesley, Amanda Abbington, Katherine Kelly and Marc Warren, who has quite a lot to do here as Robyn’s nominal NA sponsor. America’s Bradley Whitford is here too, as a “Don’t you know who I am?” movie star in an episode that takes place entirely over the course of a transatlantic flight.

Paquin is good. Like her lookalike Claire Danes, there is something in her features and bearing that suggests strength always on the verge of collapse. Her scenes with the excellent Angelson are worth watching even out of context. As a universe may be extrapolated from a grain of sand, the actresses pack whole lives into an instant, even when they seem to be doing nothing much. Watching them cross a bridge together, to drop a memorial sunflower into the Thames, is as exciting, in its way, as any of the more obviously sensational moments the series has to offer.

‘Flack’

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Where: POP

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sexual content)

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd


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