The Absolutely Fabulous 20th Anniversary Special debuts tonight on BBC America at 10 p.m. Eastern.
In 2012, Patsy Stone and Edina “Eddie” Monsoon, the air-kissing, hard-partying, label-obsessed fashionistas at the center of the cult British comedy Absolutely Fabulous, ought to seem like relics of a bygone era, but if anything, the years have been kind to these two old boozehounds. Two decades after AbFab first debuted on the BBC, Patsy and Eddie seem only slightly more ridiculous than the women of Sex And The City.
“Identity,” the first of three half-hour episodes filmed to commemorate the show’s 20th anniversary, begins with a tableau that will be instantly familiar to AbFab fans: Edina, hungover and wearing her “Frankie Says Relax” t-shirt, wakes up in the bedroom of her capacious Holland Park townhouse. In a hungover fog, she fields frantic phone calls from her dizzy assistant, Bubble (played by the divine Jane Horrocks). Moments later, Eddie lumbers downstairs wearing an absurd get-up (in this case, a head-to-toe denim ensemble including a wide-brimmed hat and two different vests).
In a nod to the times, Edina barks a few vague directives at Bubble: “More blog…I want ‘My favorite cheese’—that sort of thing.” Then she’s out the door and into the back of a luxury sedan. When her chauffeur informs her they’re driving through Brixton, she orders him to roll down the windows and play some dub-step. Soon we discover the unlikely purpose of Edina’s mission. For once, she’s not on her way to the spa or “Harvey Nicks.” Quite the opposite: she’s headed to Longview Prison to pick up adult daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha), who's just served two years for falsifying documents for asylum seekers.
Edina may not have changed one iota since 1992, but the world around her has; Saffron’s return from prison provides a convenient reminder of this fact. In what may be the episode’s best scene, Patsy, Edina and Bubble debrief Saffron on the everything that's happened during her time behind bars. “There’s a new disease called ‘The Kardashians,’” says Eddie. Patsy elaborates: “Each one with its own show, they’re spreading like head lice.” Then Bubble chimes in with a brilliantly concise summary of the royal wedding (“Pippa, Pippa! Swish, swish, swish”).
There’s a glancing mention of the “credit crunch” and a few jokes about the London riots, but otherwise Patsy and Eddie’s concerns remain the same: fashion, celebrity, status. Their single-minded commitment to frivolity might seem ill-suited in these grave and austere times, but it isn’t, really. The irony is that, while the financial and political climate has grown considerably worse over the past two decades, Patsy and Eddie’s behavior actually seems less ridiculous than it once did. After all, who’s buying all these magazines with the Kardashians on the cover?
The dynamics between the central characters remain the same, with one slight shift: Patsy, who has always hated the earnest, dour Saffron, now begrudgingly offers her some respect. Why the change? Patsy has learned through the grapevine that Saffron was "top dog" in prison, news that of course delights Eddie. Hoping that her daughter’s street cred might rub off on her, Eddie encourages Saffron to invite her prison friends to the house. It turns out one of those "friends," a frightening-looking roughneck named Baron, is actually Patsy's former drug dealer. She's come to collect the £50,000 Patsy owes her for various drug purchases—including ayahuasca from the depths of the Amazon.
In a desperate bid to scroung up the money, Patsy and Eddie eventually wind up at the most un-glamorous venue of all: the benefits office. Patsy has no official documents and can no longer remember her actual birth date (she can, however, recall her full name: Eurydice Colette Clytemnestra Bathsheba Dido Rabelais Patricia Cocteau Stone). The elaborate joke is that Patsy is so dysfunctional and unproductive that she doesn’t actually exist in any official capacity, and it's wickedly funny stuff. These days, it feels almost cathartic to laugh at the idle wealthy. Of course, credit is also due Joanna Lumley who, at 65, remains an unrivaled comedic performer.
While longtime AbFab fans will enjoy this latest incarnation of the series, which has been reprised multiple times since its official end in 1995, “Identity” most definitely isn’t for AbFab neophytes, who will most likely be confused by the broad performances, the outré costumes, and the disembodied canned laughter. (Truth be told, even the most ardent fans are likely to be irritated by the incessant laugh track.)
After watching “Identity,” I revisited a few old episodes of Absolutely Fabulous, a show that I enjoyed back in my high school days despite not getting all the jokes. If anything the series seems less farcical—though no less funny—than it did in the mid-‘90s. If anything, it is astonishingly prescient: in the premiere episode, Eddie tries to adopt an orphan from Romania and makes thrice-weekly “colonic irrigation” appointments. In 1992, Patsy and Eddie were hilariously monstrous caricatures. Twenty years later, in the era of $425 Gwyneth Paltrow-approved colon cleanses and Kardashian-branded magazines, they're nowhere near as far-fetched.