That Old Feeling: Ab Fab Forever

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Jennifer Saunders, left, as Edina and, Joanna Lumley as Patsy

"So bad they're good." It usually describes works of pop culture that possess an endearing incompetence, that take brave, solemn swan dives and make artistic belly flops. But the phrase can also refer to people or, at least, fictional characters. Two such are Edwina Margaret Rose (Edina, or Eddy) Monsoon and Eurydice Colette Clytemnestra Dido Bathsheba Rebelais Patricia Cocteau (Patsy, or Pats) Stone, the chain-smoking, chain-drinking, pill-popping, cocaine-snorting members of the British uppers class in the sitcom "Absolutely Fabulous." As incarnated by Jennifer Saunders (the series' only writer) and Joanna Lumley, Eddy and Pats are so evil they're medieval, so mean they're keen, so bad they're great.

Edina, flighty, selfish and given to wearing frocks two sizes too small for her figure, runs a London public-relations firm and, now and then, a TV production company and clothing shop. Eddy has gone through two husbands; one is now a rabbi, the other's gay. It's a hard job raising a kid alone, and she botched it. Eddy's a baaaad mother to Saffron (Saffy, or Saff), played by Julia Swalha as a poignant, insufferably sensible young woman — a grind at school, hiding behind thick glasses and inside bulky cardigans — who's 180 degrees different from her trend-following mother.

Patsy, whom a tabloid headline once labeled a "fash-mag slag," is the show's own Ivana Tramp. She was the executive fashion director of, and is now a consultant for, a posh woman's magazine. "I decide what goes in the magazine," she brags. "Y' know, one snap of my fingers and I can raise hemlines so high that the world is your gynecologist." Model-slim, Patsy walks with the stooped, nocturnal posture of a hunchbacked vampire and ingests only alcohol, cigarette toxins and other drugs; other than one potato chip, she hasn't eaten since the early 70s. But it's what she spits out that makes her as naughty as she is haughty: corrosive disdain for all those around her, sometimes including her best friend Edina, and always focused on Saff. Pats has hated this sorry spawn even before its birth. "Abort abort abort! I said, 'Bring me ... a knitting needle!'"

"Ab Fab" had a short, brilliant life: a prototype sketch in 1990 on the "French and Saunders" show she did with Dawn French, then three six-episode seasons of "Ab Fab" ran on BBC in 1992, 93 and 94, and a one-off, called "The Last Shout," aired in 1996. After that, it vanished into rerun land. The brightest, nastiest comedy of the decade was imitated on American TV (in the series "High Society," with Jean Smart and Mary McDonnell in wan versions of Saunders and Lumley, and "Cybill," featuring a Patsyish character played by Christine Baranski). Roseanne Barr tried to get a U.S. version made with Carrie Fisher and Barbara Carrera in the lead roles, but the ABC censors couldn't accept the implicit approval of a degenerate life-style.

The tributes continued apace. "Sex in the City" has to have taken some inspiration from Eddy, Pats and their gal-pals. Two muppets styled after Patsy and Edina showed up on "Sesame Street," enriching pre-schoolers' vocabularies with the words "sweetie" and "darling." And this August saw a feature-length French version, Gabriel Aghion's "Abolument Fabuleux," with Josiane Balasko as Eddie Mousson and Natalie Baye as Patricia; Saunders bestowed her blessing by making a cameo appearance. But Abfabulytes — devotees of the one true show — had to make do with memorizing the 19 old episodes by watching them on videotape or DVDs.

So hail BBC and Comedy Central — and mainly hail Saunders — because six new episodes begin this Monday the 12th on CC and continue through December 17. Since each show lasts about 29 mins., and the network needs to get its glut of commercials in, it will air three shows (a new episode and two old ones) in a two-hour block each week. CC will excise a few "shit"s and one remark from the third episode. This one: As she takes lunch with Saffy at a posh Paris restaurant, Eddy notices a statue. "Look at that Buddha," she says. "Better not let the Taliban know it's here." We'll see this week if another line is cut. In episode one, Patsy offers Eddy a new de-wrinkle injection that Saff claims came from the biochemical labs in Iraq; Eddy shrugs, "If it's good enough for Saddam, it's good enough for us."


What's a show from the 90s doing in a column that celebrates venerable entertainment? Well, I love it; that's reason enough. But a better one is that Edina and Patsy are relics from another era: dinosaurs from the go-go 60s. That's the time the girls are stuck in, the one they measure all later, drabber decades against. They are dinosaurs who no longer rule the earth but are so blitzed to notice their own extinction.

The show cagily cites all manner of 60s artifacts and artists. The theme song is "This Wheel's On Fire" written in 1967 by Bob Dylan and The Band's Rick Danko. In "The Last Shout," as Eddy careers down the slope toward death, the last thing she hears is a 60s-style pop band sing "Good Morning Starshine" (from "Hair"). In a episode that flashes back to their high school years, Patsy tells Eddy, "You look like Kathy McGowan" (a presenter on the pop music show "Ready, Steady, Go!") and Eddy replies, "You look like Marianne Faithfull" (Mick Jagger's one-time girl friend).

Faithfull — who had a 1965 hit with the Jagger-Richard "As Tears Go By," fell into heroin addiction, put on a few stone, dropped her voice an octave and reemerged as a Dietrichy chanteuse (all in all, an exemplary pop-icon career) — appears twice in "Ab Fab": once as God, in "The Last Shout," and in the new season as an angel fighting over Eddy's soul with the Devil, played by a horned Anita Pallenberg (who endured her own drug problems and, not to be outdone by Faithfull, had affairs with three of the Rolling Stones). Patsy herself used to date Keith Moon, late of The Who. Well, not date, exactly: "I woke up underneath him in a hotel bedroom once." But no wonder Eddy and Pats are nostalgic for the 60s; it was such an amusingly self-destructive period. As Patsy asks scornfully, "Who dies in their own vomit today?" Eddy shouts, "Nobody!"

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