Streaming television is a numbers game. “Original series” remain a primary currency for understanding the cultural value of a platform like Hulu—they win awards, are more likely to be reviewed by critics, and justify significant ad campaigns. But Hulu’s ultimate value depends on the breadth and depth of its library. Subscribers should feel like they could spend years watching all the service has to offer.
The challenge becomes how streaming platforms “eventize” the strategic acquisition of library content, particularly content that has limited brand recognition in the United States. It’s one thing when Hulu licenses The O.C., a deal with Warner Bros. that was covered extensively online. But Hulu also has the rights to plenty of foreign TV content, especially British series, most of which land on the service without any type of promotion. Did you know that you can watch Plebs or Detectorists on Hulu? Did you even know these shows existed? While covered by specific communities focused on British television, the awareness around these “launches” is nonexistent—content just shows up on Hulu, bolstering the library without the fanfare that comes with The Path or 11.22.63.
This cannot happen to My Mad Fat Diary. Adapted by Tom Bidwell for British channel E4 and based on Rae Earl’s My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary, the series transports the viewer back to 1996 Lincolnshire, and into what otherwise reads as a typical coming-of-age story: Rae (Sharon Rooney) is 16 years old, horny, and navigating a complicated relationship with her mother, her friends, and herself. This story begins with Rae being discharged from a psychiatric hospital, where she spent four months after cutting herself due to her binge-eating disorder. The show is presented as her diary, honest and unflinching in its awareness of the show’s title: Rae is “mad,” Rae is “fat,” and the show never shies away from the fact that it is about her battle with mental illness and being “normal” in a world where she is judged based on her weight.
The show pulls its drama from the conflict between its specificity and its interest in the tropes of teen dramas. When Rae re-emerges from psychiatric care, she falls in with her estranged friend Chloe’s “gang” (broody Finn, boisterous Chop, bubbly Izzy, boyish Archie) who live normal lives and who Rae has never met previously. They represent a shortcut to the fresh start Rae is hoping for: cool people, from whom Rae can choose confidants and objects of lust in equal measure. But Rae’s point of view—established by voiceover and fun, often-vulgar onscreen writing and sketches—consistently reminds us that she is not a normal teenager. When she starts crushing on Archie—who, beyond his good looks, sings an acoustic cover of “Return Of The Mack,” because it’s 1996—she imagines three scenarios in which he would date her: He secretly has a thing for “big women,” she’s the last woman on Earth, or she force-feeds him until he’s fat, too. When Rae takes a photo of her friends, she first carefully zips up the sleeve on her leather jacket, conscious of the hospital bracelet that would break the façade of normality she’s working so hard to maintain.
This conflict doesn’t resolve across the show’s three-season run, which concluded in the U.K. last year. My Mad Fat Diary is always a teenage coming-of-age story, using key milestones of love, friendship, and education, but it never forgets the specific insecurities Rae carries with her. As much as Rae grows as a character (even in the premiere itself), and as much as her friends and family are fleshed out over the course of the series, the show acknowledges—better than so many others—the way mental illness will carry with you no matter what else might be happening in your life. And even as Rae finds romance as the series continues, she never stops thinking of it as something of a fantasy, constantly skeptical of the idea that someone would want to be with her given her weight and her past. The show relies more on plot twists as it moves forward (Bidwell was not the writer on the third season), but it focuses on how someone in Rae’s position would navigate this thing called life.
My Mad Fat Diary is strikingly well-made, with a fantastic anchor performance from Sharon Rooney and BAFTA-nominated supporting work by Claire Rushbrook as Rae’s mother Linda. (The show also received a 2014 BAFTA nomination for Best Drama Series.) Its use of voiceover narration is one of the best in recent memory, combining with the series’ visual aesthetics to create a distinctive stylistic framework that both fits this story and sets the show apart. And the ’90s soundtrack—although trimmed in its Hulu form due to expected licensing issues given the sheer volume of Britpop-focused music that scores the series—further transports us back to this specific time and place, while using Rae’s love of music as a reminder that such connections are cross-generational. Even if today’s teenagers don’t recognize the songs, they should understand the sentiment. Its specificity also emerges both in atypical relationships—Rae and her therapist Kester, for example—and its more typical romantic or friendship pairings, which succeed at developing rich emotional arcs despite the typical shortness of British TV seasons. (The entire series runs 16 episodes.)
Given this praise, the question emerges: Why has this not arrived in America sooner? Technically speaking, the show has been available in America through the wonders of online video, with sites like YouTube or DailyMotion hosting episodes illegally due to a lack of global distribution. But why didn’t Hulu or another streaming site take notice in 2014 when Emily Nussbaum reviewed the show for The New Yorker, one of the rare cases of an unlicensed foreign series being reviewed by a mainstream U.S. publication? Why didn’t a surprise third-season renewal reignite interest last year? Why did a show that debuted to critical raves and a devoted (if not gigantic) following in 2013 take three years to arrive in the U.S. in an era where streaming platforms and cable channels are more interested than ever in original content?
For a while, it seemed as though music licensing fees were to blame. The unfortunate absence of some key cues—a jukebox tragically plays a generic rock track instead of “Sabotage” in the premiere—suggests that the soundtrack was one financial/logistical roadblock that needed to be navigated. The central issue, however, may be that My Mad Fat Diary never hides the fact that it’s a show about an overweight teenager struggling with mental illness. It never “transcends” its specificity, and never tries to overemphasize the universal elements of the story in the interest of making this seem like a less complicated show than it is. It is a wry, funny, and romantic show, but it’s also dark, which is why it has connected with so many people, and why episodes of the show in the U.K. were often followed by information about resources viewers could use to address these issues in their own lives.
This type of approach to this story seems unimaginable in an American context, where the closest thing is ABC Family’s short-lived and much-beloved Huge. MTV reportedly tried to adapt My Mad Fat Diary with Bidwell, but it’s hardly shocking that it hasn’t materialized. It couldn’t be a case like The DUFF, the 2015 YA adaptation that bends over backwards to justify why Mae Whitman’s Bianca is objectively neither ugly nor fat. (The film claims it’s a metaphor.) My Mad Fat Diary is about an overweight teenage girl, and never at any point asks her to play the fool or turn her weight into a point of comedy, or expects her to conform to the standards of who is expected to be the lead in a film or television series. It’s just a fact of who she is: This is Rae Earl, this is her story, and this is probably why spaces like Hulu weren’t rushing out to license a teen drama built around her.
But that reluctance is what led so many American viewers to invest in the show in the first place. The fact that you couldn’t watch My Mad Fat Diary “legally” was part of its appeal. It made watching the series an act of rebellion, acknowledging the failures of U.S. distribution and reinforcing how special the show is. My Mad Fat Diary was something you stumbled upon via a Twitter friend, or saw on Tumblr and sought out on your own, and you felt that much more excited about it when you had to work for it and when you could introduce it to people who had no idea it existed.
And now, thankfully, it’s something that those people can discover on Hulu. My Mad Fat Diary will never draw a wide audience on the streaming site—this is a niche show, both in the U.K. and in terms of how it has spread informally to other parts of the world. But the fact that it is now available to anyone digging into Hulu’s library looking for something to watch is both a reflection of the continued presence of foreign content on U.S. streaming services and a case of life imitating art. Much as the show is about shedding light on this complex character who has been absent from television at large, this is also a victory for an underdog television series emerging from an unwarranted purgatory to reach the audience it deserves.