Review: Sensitive Skin

ss_keyart_1024The folks behind Sensitive Skin are smart. Get too wordy in a review and you wind up sounding like Al, Skin‘s wannabe downtown Toronto hipster who clings to columnist status though he’s barely a blogger.

Al is played by Don McKellar, also the director of this series which premiered July 20 on HBO Canada. I was out of town at the time of the premiere and catching up post-press tour. Was there much promotion and I missed it or is this another example of Canadian media companies not budgeting enough to get their shows announced through the clutter?

Kim Cattrall stars as Davina, a beautiful, 50-something woman who moves to a downtown Toronto condo with her hypochondriac hubby, Al. The two are trying to change up their lives and stay relevant. The series re-teams McKellar and Bob Martin, the director/writer duo behind the Tony Award-winning “The Drowsy Chaperon” as well as a CBC series I loved but few saw, Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays.

There are 10 producers and executive producers listed on the series, although I may have counted Hugo Blick–creator of the original British series, on which this is based–twice. When Cattrall, McKellar and Martin previewed this series last November at the inaugural Canadian International Television Festival, however, it seemed to boil down to their shared vision, so let’s go with that.

I’ve watched the first four of six episodes and it felt like it took that long for the series to find its stride. Paul Newman once said directing yourself in a movie is “like sticking a gun in your mouth.” McKellar has to perform that task here, and seems a bit over-loaded in the first two episodes. That’s not to say he doesn’t seize the part, especially during a hilarious scene with a drug dealer who hangs outside his condo (Cle Bennett) and later as an over-prepared book reviewer. Mary Walsh gets a star turn in the second episode but that seems six episodes too soon as we are still getting to know Davina and Al. Elliott Gould is wonderfully restrained in episode four as a quack MD. Martin also appears in the series as Davina’s gallery mate and confidant.

For me, you could have stripped away a lot of this just to get to Davina. She’s the one we first meet in a drug store where she has come to pick up some hormone replacement remedy and is made to feel old and wrinkled in the process. Cattrall carries her famous Sex and the City persona into the scene and bravely sheds that skin within minutes, setting up high expectations for a study of a modern, middle-aged woman.

That focus gets a bit lost in what comes next. Davina’s husband Al never shuts up. Their well-to-do in-laws (Colm Feore and Joanna Gleason) are just assholes. Their son (Nicolas Wright) is a miserable jerk. Life sucks if you’re a former model and actress now resigned to a part-time art gallery job and frequent visits to a salon.

As a portrait of a marriage, Sensitive Skin is not for the squeamish. Bored Davina orders a horribly uncomfortable couch that looks like a Henry Moore sculpture. The only comfortable place in their cube-like dwelling is their bed, which Al fouls with his laptop and novels. In the pilot, he keeps listening over-and-over again to Anne Murray’s “Snowbird” in what seems like an elaborate Can-con joke.

Ted Whittall plays a worthy temptation for Davina by next Sunday’s third episode and Marc-Andre Grondin plays a younger one in episode four. I liked these episodes better because they were more about Davina and the difficult question at hand: what does she want?

The series is beautifully designed, with the West Toronto condo maze captured in all its glass and concrete glory. If you live in downtown Toronto, you’ll recognize many storefronts and streetcars. If you live outside Toronto, you’ll find plenty to love/hate.

Sensitive Skin is uneven but it may just be an adaptation that needs more time to find itself as a Canadian series. It is certainly well cast and well made. It has many honest, poignant moments of boomer desperation. There are some direct hits on Toronto’s hipster/condo core. A second season that took a bigger swing at Davina’s personal journey would be welcomed. And, sure, more Anne Murray, although let’s hear something a little more obscure, maybe Robbie’s Song for Jesus.

4 Responses to “Review: Sensitive Skin”

  1. I haven’t watched an episode but I’m not sure I will now. It seems to be your typical “giant array of annoying unlikeable characters” that many Canadian comedies seem to suffer from these past few years (ie. Working the Engels, Satisfaction, Package Deal, 18 to Life, Seed, etc.). In these comedies there seems to be at least one or two non-annoying characters but they are drowned out by the annoying ones. None of these comedies succeeded because they failed in giving us characters we liked watching enough to keep watching. It’s not just Canadian comedies that seem to suffer from this–it’s many American ones too. Most North American network comedies have been pretty much failures in the last 7 years. The only returning comedies I’ll be watching this coming season are Big Bang Theory and The Goldbergs and that’s because in addition to general funniesness, the characters on both are well-fleshed out and likeable. That’s 2 comedies out of 36 returning shows I intend to watch across the next year (yes I know I’m a tv addict). Aside from those two, there has maybe only been three comedies I have stuck with past one season–How I Met Your Mother and Canadian comedies Mixed Blessings and Mr. D. I dropped Mr. D after two seasons I think due to scheduling conflicts on my DVR. This upcoming fall I intend on checking out new comedies Mohawk Girls, Schitt’s Creek, A to Z and Selfie. Hopefully those shows will try to go for likeability rather than quirkiness.

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  2. Meridith

    I feel the annoying characters, especially their son with his dog’s paleo diet, only make the audience like Davina and Al much more.

    The world has passed them by and all the condos in the world won’t bring it back. I’m not saying this as a slam, just as an observation. The premiere’s drug store scene makes all the more sense when you find out that Davina’s looks were all she has (had?), even though she looks a million times better than myself.

    I’ll stick around, but not for the hopes of more Anne Murray.

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  3. R. Mark Desjardins

    As a Kim Cattrall fan, I was expecting a lot, and after watching the six episodes, I felt she delivered. Yes the series is quirky, but that is its charm. It is refreshing to see a Canadian location NOT have to pass for somewhere else. My only disappointment was that the first season finale was not well publicized. As well, very frequent announcements for the next HBO program popped up during the broadcast and that took away from the drama of the final cliffhanging scene.

    I hope that this series gets renewed as I feel there is much more to explore. Bravo to all involved in this production!

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  4. I want to like the show, but find it slow and too melancholy to enjoy. In Season 2, it is still meandering without much plot action nor a deep, engaging character study. Netflix doesn’t have a lot of shows like this, so I hope they make it either funnier or more poignant.

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