Fresh Meat, which had its second series debut in the United States Sunday, airs on Hulu.
The key to making cringe comedy that people who don't normally like cringe comedy is to make the characters and the situations need that cringe comedy. For example, in the Parks And Recreation episode “The Comeback Kid,” one of the best of the election-focused stories, the cast all ends up doing a horribly awkward ice rink crossing. It's embarrassing and cringe-worthy, yes, but it works because by this point we care about and like the characters and want them to succeed, even though they've put themselves in a position—a stressful campaign none of them have engaged in before—where some failure is almost inevitable. The comedy is entirely consonant with what we know of the situation and characters, and we have faith that they're good/strong enough people to make it right.
Fresh Meat, a British show whose second season is being released by Hulu over the next few weeks, manages to achieve that consonance despite the cringe pedigree of its creators coming from Peep Show. In college (university for our British readers—they mean roughly the same thing here in the US but college is far more commonly used), emotions are heightened, social cues are constantly missed, everything seems like it should be better than it is, and it certainly feels like everything is the most important thing in the world. Hence any awkwardness tends to flow directly from the characters and situations naturally. Misunderstanding each other is what the first year of college, and possibly the second or third or even fourth, is all about. It's who these characters are.
One of the ways that Fresh Meat is sneaky smart for an apparently trifling show is that “kids who make mistakes” is just about the only thing that it's willing to say about its characters. The first year of college is also about identity formation. In the first season, Oregon was the clearest example of this, trying on a totally new identity to the point where she appeared to be a pathological liar to her supposed best friend. But you also had Kingsley trying on a new major for its spontaneity, J.P. slowly discovering that his prep school wasn't the entirety of life, Vod learning about, well, learning, and even Howard discovering the difficulties of balancing friendly and romantic relationships.
Through all of that Josie was treated as the protagonist and subject of the piece. She was the “good person” whose choices were generally supposed to be the most sympathetic, and her arc from the nice girl next door with a long-term boyfriend to being free without any particular anchor was perhaps the most conventional of the season. To be honest, I was somewhat surprised by this: usually shows make their main character the one who is the blank slate at the start, where Josie's activism, boyfriend, and dentistry gave her an earnest specificity. To put it in Freaks And Geeks (a very similarly structured show) terms, she's Millie to Kingsley's Lindsay, but she got more screen time.
The most daring thing about this second season premiere is that Fresh Meat eliminates both Josie and Kingsley's conventional-protagonist vibe. Josie is portrayed as, well, a bad person-in-training, who is turning her will-they/won't-they relationship with Kingsley into something poisonous. Meanwhile, Kingsley's soul patch, hat, yo-yo, and general pick-up artist vibe immediately make him appear very different than he was in the first season. His actions in the episode aren't all that different from his actions in the first season, but his aesthetics, the person he's trying to portray, are very different.
Everyone has at least a bit of added specificity, and they're all that much less willing to simply be nice. This fits with the normal pattern of college student behavior, I believe. When I was in school, I was on a committee that discussed student retention, and we had evidence that returning know-it-all second-year students tended to be one of the biggest problems in terms of turning the first-years against the school. On Fresh Meat it's second-term instead of second-year students, but the idea is the same: they all think they know how their lives work, which leaves them closed off to new ideas instead of being open, as they were in the first season. It's not just Josie and Kingsley—it's also Howard with his extra-offputting abattoir job, it's Oregon having shifted from enthusiastic punk to entitled preppie, and it's Vod manipulating the group for money.
Oddly, this leaves J.P. as the most relatable character in the house, something I'm shocked and amazed by given how horrifying he was initially. Much respect has to be given to actor Jack Whitehall, for always displaying the humanity at J.P.'s core, even when he's at his most cartoonish. He's the only character in the process of becoming more open, as he continues to realize that his prep school experience was not the entirety of life. The specific scene where his friend came out to him and J.P. didn't get it was a bit overlong, but I thought the rest of his coming-to-terms with it, especially his chat with Kingsley, was really well done.
Beyond Fresh Meat being sneaky smart about college life, the second season premiere was also one of the funniest episodes so far. It mixed the ridiculous (“It's loose, jazz meat”) with the dry (“We played an extremely aggressive game of Boggle, and called it a night”) and the character-based (“Aw, shit. You're tolerating me.”) One of Fresh Meat's big problems in the first season was that it could be charmingly awkward but struggled to sustain humor over time. Fresh Meat is a show that seems to be getting better at every level at the start of its second season while also taking daring storytelling risks.
- “They're all cabbies in the north, Giles. For a price.”
- “If you can murder ze vermin I will conzider you.” Adding a seventh housemate—who seems to be a hardass—is another risky move, but with Josie and Kingsley both falling down the path of hedony, I think having someone there to be grumpy at the students' antics is necessary.
- “Interesting work. Have you ever attempted a…fifth penis, emanating from the tail?” I also quite enjoyed Heather, although precisely why she was friends with Josie in the first place never came through.
- It's overly convenient, and therefore difficult for for me to believe that Oregon and Vod would both take Tony's course again.
- “You're one of the big six economies in this house. If you collapse, you'll take us all down.”
- I know that this season has already aired in the U.K., so if you'd like to get into spoilers, please mark them clearly with all caps so those watching on Hulu's pace won't be surprised.