HBO Max's Frayed is Another Wonder of Peak TV

Why this under-the-radar Australian dramedy about a London finance wife's unraveling is worth seeking out.
  • Frazer Hadfield, Sarah Kendall and Maggie Ireland-Jones in a promotional image for Frayed. (HBO Max)
    Frazer Hadfield, Sarah Kendall and Maggie Ireland-Jones in a promotional image for Frayed. (HBO Max)

    When it comes to currying empathy, people who work in financial services tend to rank somewhere in the vicinity of muggers and murderers; reasonable people may disagree about how much harm they've done humanity, but not that harm has been done. It would probably be impossible for a writer to place such a person at the heart of a TV dramedy and make him relatable, but the creator of Frayed has set herself the only slightly less challenging task of building her show around a finance guy's shitty, entitled wife, and playing the character herself. Amazingly, she pulls it off.

    In 1988 London, Simone (Sarah Kendall) rushes to a hospital morgue, where she learns that her husband Nick has died of a massive heart attack under distinctly scandalous circumstances. The news gets worse after the funeral, when Rufus (Robert Webb), the lawyer dealing with the estate, explains that her late husband was insolvent; Simone will need to sell all their assets just to settle their debts and head off numerous lawsuits. With nowhere else to go, Simone and her two children, Lenny (Frazer Hadfield) and Tess (Maggie Ireland-Jones), travel to her native Australia, whereupon the kids learn that Simone's lied to them about every aspect of her life before her marriage — including her name, which is actually Sammy.

    Though her mother Jean (Kerry Armstrong) permits Sammy and the kids to move back in to Sammy's childhood home, it's on the condition that she contribute to the household, so for the first time in her life, Sammy has to get a job. Fortunately, her former high school classmate Chris (George Houvardas) is now the local Member of Parliament, and retains enough of a crush on her to hire her to work in his office — and immediately parade her past her ex, Dan (Matt Passmore). In London, Simone may have had, as she brags more than once, "the kind of money" that would make people "sick," but Newcastle Sammy has only vague and desperate notions of how to escape her financial troubles.

    We soon discover Sammy blew town (suddenly, without warning, though not without several good reasons) 23 years earlier. It makes sense that some characters — like Jean, or Dan, or Sammy's adult brother Jim (Ben Mingay), who also still lives with Jean — would have been steadily nursing their grudges against Sammy so that their resentment would feel as urgent upon her return to Newcastle as it was the day she left; other characters feel like, for the sake of a plot point, they've just been waiting for her to come back to tell her off, even when it's also established that she barely knew them then. (It is a clever device to have the airline lose Simone's London luggage so that, when she gets to Jean's house, Sammy must wear her musty old clothes from high school, underlining the effect of her being stripped of all her English pretensions and forced back into her former identity.) If it seems like I've listed a whole lot of named characters for the viewer to keep track of, guess what: there are even more. The receptionist at Chris's office! The other bullied kid Lenny makes friends with at school! The neighbor girl Lenny has a crush on! Jim's girlfriend! Jean's boyfriend! Dan's girlfriend! Dan's mum! There are definitely times over the course of the season where it seems like Kendall, the show's sole writer, has lost track of some players and neglected to service their stories; without spoiling anything, I thought I had diagnosed a health issue based on symptoms exhibited by one of Sammy's children, only for that plot thread to get summarily dropped.

    But these are nitpicks; Frayed is extremely watchable, and Kendall — whose performance earned her a BAFTA nomination this year — is the comedic force propelling it forward. Whereas the Simone we meet in the early going, carefully disguising her Australian accent, is behaving as the elegant head of her children's school's Parents & Friends Association should even though she just found out moments before how horribly her husband has died, it only takes a few days for the Newcastle to assert itself; when Rufus tells her she has to sell her house, she warns him, "If they bring someone around, I'm going to shit in every room as a greeting... Yes, I know there are a lot of rooms, so I'm going to have to produce a lot of shit." Later, Chris tries to impress her with his plans to revitalize Newcastle, a dying steel town, as she tries to match his energy.

    Chris: You know what this city was built on?

    Sammy [gravely]: Rock and roll.

    Chris: It was built on steel....The Chinese government want to build new cities from scratch. And what do you need to build cities?

    Sammy [whispering knowingly]: Tractors.

    Chris: Steel. Know what else cities need?

    Sammy: Toilets.

    Sammy lies reflexively, tries to get in on a corrupt scheme rather than alert any authorities, and retains the mean-girl tendencies that earned her so many enemies when she was in high school. But we also learn what she was dealing with then, and precisely what aspects of her messy youth in Newcastle she didn't want her own children to encounter. An excellent addition to television's pantheon of confident idiots, Sammy's setbacks and victories over the course of the season make for a much more satisfying arc than expected when we first meet the barely bereaved widow airily telling her lawyer to deal with her financial problems by selling one of her yachts.

    Frayed is unlikely to stand out in the crowded TV landscape: it's small, it's foreign, it probably doesn't star anyone you recognize unless you remember Matt Passmore from 13 Reasons Why. (Webb, late of Peep Show, is more famous, but his role is barely more than a cameo.) But trust that Catastrophe co-star and co-creator Sharon Horgan knew what she was doing when she signed on to be Frayed's executive producer: take this journey back in time, and below the Equator, to see how a daughter of Newcastle deals with social and financial ruin. If that doesn't interest you, there are more poop jokes.

    Frayed premieres today on HBO Max.

    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: Frayed, HBO Max, Matt Passmore, Sarah Kendall, Sharon Horgan