With a deceptively simple plot, a somewhat evasive tone and a cast of stars who are far better known on the Other Side of the Pond, the new half-hour dramedy Rain Dogs may be a tough sell for HBO.
Allow me to try: Rain Dogs is The Last of Us with poverty instead of mushroom zombies. I could add that it’s also a fine economic counterbalance to the satirical affluence of The White Lotus and Succession, but nah. Let’s go with The Last of Us as my primary point of comparison. Sure, that’s inviting disappointment for a handful of [million] video game fans, but if it gets some additional viewers to check out a rewarding, but undeniably tough, little show, it’s probably worth it.
On a more practical level, series creator Cash Carraway is essentially giving The Object of My Affection — you may remember either Stephen McCauley’s novel or the Jennifer Aniston/Paul Rudd film — a strychnine-laced reboot.
Daisy May Cooper, heading for a big American breakout this spring with Am I Being Unreasonable? coming to Hulu in April, plays Costello, an aspiring writer struggling to make rent working a booth at a London peep show. Really struggling. The series, in fact, begins with Costello and daughter Iris (Fleur Tashjian), nearing her 10th birthday, getting kicked out of their scuzzy flat and beginning an eight-episode odyssey for domestic stability. The Tom Waits song of the same name isn’t featured in the series, but both titles conjure a similar image of displacement and literal and emotional sheltering.
Costello, sober for three-plus months but always teetering, has a very unusual support system of people who can help her, but only so much. That group includes Gloria (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), working at her father’s funeral home and prone to waking up in random phone booths dressed for the previous night’s escapades, and Lenny (Adrian Edmondson), an ailing artist whose main representational subject is vaginas.
The X-factor in Costello and Iris’ life is Selby (Jack Farthing), introduced on the brink of being released after a one-year prison stint for a violent assault. Selby is wealthy, gay, thoroughly self-destructive and just as thoroughly toxic when it comes to his best friend Costello. At the same time, he’s a fiercely devoted paternal figure for Iris, willing to do anything to help her, even if his interventions invariably lead to disaster.
Yes, I know that description doesn’t necessarily give off that Last of Us vibe, does it? But think of Rain Dogs as an almost (and sometimes entirely) picaresque mother-daughter vagrant journey across England. Iris isn’t exactly humanity’s only hope, but she’s the thing that’s keeping Costello (and Selby) going. Costello and Iris aren’t the only people struggling in this landscape, though, and in each episode they find a different place to rest their heads, encounter different extremes and threats — from sexual predators to the imperfections of the British safety net to that inevitable stop that looks like it might be utopia but, instead, might cost everybody their souls. It’s all set against a backdrop of a modern London where full-time employment isn’t a guarantee of being able to afford housing and where the opportunities that pay the best — the rewards and desperation of sex work play a major role here, as it did in AMC’s criminally ignored Mood — are the opportunities that come with unfair stigmas.
It’s a premise and structure that let Carraway, writer of all eight episodes, steer into the messiness of her main characters, who from the outside appear to all be addicts and deviants and even from the inside don’t always look like the right village to be raising this child. There’s a repetitiveness to Costello’s cycle of decisions, but Carraway is careful to position the slippery slope of destitution and wrong calls within a working-class British tradition that ranges from Dickensian workhouses to Loachian factory towns. The show’s position — and the position that Costello often references with an encyclopedic range of pop- culture knowledge — is that the aesthetic of filmed poverty tends toward gritty realism and doesn’t allow for the fanciful and figurative leaps that heroes from other tax brackets can experience. Now is this true? Having watched ample amounts of Roseanne and Shameless and plenty of British blue-collar shows, I’m not so sure. But delusions of self-importance are a part of Costello’s character.
Cooper has a little of that vintage Roseanne energy to her performance, which is the unapologetically brash fulcrum that sets the tone’s show. She’s comfortable going lewd and broad when that’s what the tone of the show requires and when the show needs Costello to internalize her torment, Cooper nails that as well. She’s matched in those extremes by Farthing, who makes Selby louche and damaged, never selling him out for audience sympathy. Of course, sometimes you need audience sympathy and newcomer Tashjian excellently straddles that wise-but-not-too-wise line, earning empathy instead of pity for Iris. Some viewers will be uncomfortable with all the questionable parenting, though the show is careful to present Iris as in more ethical danger than anything physical. And when Costello and Selby are at their worst, Iris is sheltered off-screen. You still may prefer to call Child Protective Services.
In addition to Adékoluẹjo and Edmondson, who’s very funny in a show that doesn’t always land the “edy” part of “dramedy,” the series’ gallivanting structure makes room for a lot of memorable one-off or two-off performances. Those include an effectively down-to-earth Karl Pilkington as a debt collector and a scene-stealing Phoebe Thomas as one of the residents of a battered women’s shelter. Best of all is the always welcome Anna Chancellor, all wealthy venom as Selby’s socialite mother.
Rain Dogs isn’t always easy to embrace. It can be bleak and, despite Costello’s own protestations, its aesthetic can lean into a familiar social realism. But Carraway keeps the show moving from episode to episode and, in its sloppy but affectionate treatment of the way a cobbled-together community can be a family, there’s ample hope here. At least until the mushroom zombies finally show up.