It takes quite a bit of arrogance to create a character based on your own childhood and then make that character very smart, funny and precocious. Raised by Wolves has done this twice, with sisters Caitlin and Caz Moran basing their show around idealised versions of their teenage selves. Caitlin has the excuse of having her ego stroked three times a week as a Times columnist but you’d think her sister might have the self-awareness to take a step back and realise that such self-flattery is neither appealing nor a recipe for good TV.
Raised by Wolves, a pilot testing interest for a full series, follows a working class family in Wolverhampton, focussing on the two aforementioned main characters as they stumble through adolescence.
The show has one major strength and that’s the actresses playing the leads, both of whom are fantastic. Helen Monks seemed to be enjoying herself a great deal as the lead, Germaine, and her enthusiasm was infectious as she screwed her face up and delivered her lines with a breathless zeal. Alexa Davies played her intellectual sister Aretha and matched Monks performance with a balancing cynicism.
The dialogue though was incredibly repetitive and got annoying very quickly, like watching Juno played on loop indefinitely. It’s a little funny to watch the words of verbose adults come out of the mouths of teenagers but the show offered nothing beyond that; the characters weren’t real and came across as entirely artificial creations.
And that’s what results from writers heavily basing their creations on themselves without restraint. You can imagine the Moran sisters sitting at home writing the script and discussing themselves in faux-critical terms: ‘You were always so vulgar!’ ‘You always had your nose in a book!’ They’ve ended up with two characters that are almost unbearably precocious without much grounding in the actual life of a teenager. There’s a reason, when writers create characters based on themselves (see: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Everybody Hates Chris, and even the quite flattering Everybody Loves Raymond), that they tend to focus on their most embarrassing or off-putting traits: it stops the writing becoming an act of self-hagiography.
There’s a concept in writing – originally from fan fiction – called a Mary Sue that is relevant to this show. To take the definitions from Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary, a Mary Sue is an ‘idealized character representing the author,’ a ‘character who is so perfect as to be annoying… usually written by a beginning author.’ The leads in Raised by Wolves aren’t totally perfect but their flaws are feigned and shallow because it’s difficult for a writer to be genuinely critical or harsh on a character so closely based on herself.
One good thing about the show is that it sets out, deliberately according to the writer, to portray low-income families sympathetically – or, rather, to not conform to the normal portrayal of such people as benefits-scroungers and criminals. Author Owen Jones gave a great lecture recently on how negatively TV has depicted the working class in recent years, and it’s good to see a show deliberately go in the opposite direction. It did get a little close though to romanticised stereotypes – a swearing, brash, chain-smoking single mum, but a good mother to her children all the same. The show needs to avoid going too far in the opposite direction to the Vicky Pollard stereotype.
This was though, after all, a pilot, and pilots should be given plenty of leeway. Yes, the show had little plot, was very similar to early episodes of Shameless, and was filled with annoying dialogue and poor jokes. But in Monks and Davies the show has two good actresses, and TV could do with a comedy with female working class leads. If the show gets picked up for a series, I’d hope the writers would tone down the idiosyncratic dialogue, reign-in the precociousness of the main characters, and take a step back from their creation and realise that it would be a far better thing to create realistic, independent teenage girls to lead the show, rather than two flattering and self-indulgent versions of themselves.