Is an unhinged, despondent and possibly suicidal person well-placed to help others who are at risk – because they can relate to them? This challenging and arguably problematic idea bubbles away in Stan’s six-part series Totally Completely Fine, starring Thomasin McKenzie as an impertinent twentysomething who drinks, smokes dope, takes illicit substances and … inherits a waterfront property! The circumstances are sad: the house is bequeathed to McKenzie’s character Vivian by her recently passed grandfather. But the digs are pretty sweet. There’s a catch, though: located metres from a cliff front, the property regularly attracts people who are thinking of ending it.
Gramps saved many lives by talking strangers down and inviting them inside for a cuppa. Will Vivian do the same? Totally Completely Fine is hardly archetypal, but its hero’s journey is as apparent as any story about warriors or hobbits: a reluctant protagonist initially refuses a call to adventure, before taking up the quest.
In the first episode Vivian saves a runaway bride, Amy (Contessa Treffone), through rather brusque methods – introducing herself by shouting “Oi!” then asking: “What the fuck are you doing?” Not exactly a peer-reviewed counselling method. The obvious question is whether the protagonist will receive newfound purpose by assisting others. But, weirdly, the series more or less jetpacks out of this interesting premise, choosing to focus on Vivian’s relationships with friends, family and lovers.
We soon discover there’s tension between Vivian and her highly strung gay brother John (Rowan Witt), whose vegan food truck she recently burnt down after puffing on a bacon-flavoured vape. Her other brother Hendrix (Brandon McClelland) is more tolerant of her rowdy ways.
McKenzie, who was excellent as the vacant-eyed, haunted protagonist of Edgar Wright’s time-bending thriller Last Night in Soho, imbues the lead role with a compelling, slightly dangerous and volatile energy, as if parts of her psyche could combust at any moment. Visually, the show also jabs at Vivian’s psyche, by inserting visions from her past in quickly edited sequences that borrow from horror movie syntax and scream “THIS PERSON IS TROUBLED”. The cuts mean more than the images, reiterating psychological instability. But as the series progresses, a fuller picture of past trauma forms.
Totally Completely Fine loops back to these images in a circular approach that moves around various scenarios rather than progressing the plot. Creator Gretel Vella bakes into the show’s premise the opportunity for an ongoing array of heightened dramatic scenarios and interesting characters. But the story gets distracted from its bedrock idea – Vivian rising to the challenge and saving lives – as if the writers simply forgot and moved on.
Attempts to create a lightness of touch sometimes fare poorly. One scene in the second episode depicts Vivian’s psychologist neighbour Dane (Devon Terrell) teaching her and Amy how to deal with suicidal ideation. But it feels tonally off, as if it’s channelling the inspirational spirit of a movie training montage. “Hop on up, this is your ledge!” Dane says, gesturing towards the base of a disused fountain, before asking them to sprint to the front door, which has a hand-drawn picture of a telephone affixed to it. “Let’s go, come on, faster, faster!” he yells.
The darker elements can be iffy too. Its depiction of trauma – through Vivian’s flashbacks – feels overly simplistic, all directions pointing back to one formative incident. Even Dane would disapprove! The traumatic incident in question “didn’t make you like this”, he tells Vivian. “You choose how you are.” We have a character saying one thing, while the show’s form and structure communicates another: a strange schism in the writing that’s never reconciled.
Eventually, as percolating dramas boil over, scenarios get embarrassingly contrived and on the nose, with a stretch in the last episode that wouldn’t look – or sound, given the schmaltzy dialogue – out of place in a cheesy Hollywood romcom. For a much better combination of provocative comedy and pointy drama, check out the under-appreciated 2021 series The End, which wittily explores the issue of assisted dying. Unlike Totally Completely Fine, it never loses sight of its premise, or what distinguishes it from countless other productions.