It says a lot about our society circa 1994 that Jennifer Saunders' spicy social satire Absolutely Fabulous was considered uber-controversial and brazenly un-PC, almost to the point of being banned. Not unlike the classic Young Ones which deconstructed post-punk Britain in a brash, Byzantine fashion, this scripted sitcom by the former sketch comedy star poked fun at everything the UK (and the rest of the world, for that matter) had hoped were passť and part of the culture's past. In the pre-menopausal Edina Monsoon and her gal pal Patsy Stone, the series found two chain-smoking, champagne guzzling fame whores treading the tabloid runaways a good decade before Paris Hilton and her Lohan-ed ilk would dominate the scene. Unfathomably well off, almost incapable of anything except hedonistic indulgence, they reminded the glorified guardians of decency (TV or otherwise) that there was still some drug and drink fueled fun to be had at the expense of a couple of middle aged matrons. The results stand as a comedy classic.
So what, exactly, does a box set entitled Absolutely Fabulous - Absolutely Everything actually hold? Does it really, as the name suggests, contain all that Saunders and company have to offer on the topic of fashion, friendship, and interpersonal/professional faux pas? Some on the 'Net have suggested "No", pointing to music cue changes and the lack of other added content/elements that past Absolutely Fabulous DVDs have to offer (most notably, a Comic Relief Special from 2005). From an episode standpoint, here is what you get over the course of nine (9) discs:
Disc 1 - Series 1 (1992)
"Fashion" - Edina has a fashion show in a few hours, and she's just started preparing.
"Fat" - Hoping to lose some weight, Edina tries something radical - exercise.
"France" - Wanting to get away from it all, Edina and Patsy head to the Continent.
"ISO Tank" - While immersed in warm water, Edina envisions life as a new mother.
"Birthday" - Edina's turning 40, and she's not happy about it.
"Magazine" - Patsy hits the office, and Edina's along for the ride.
Disc 2 - Series 2 (1994)
"Hospital" - Edina and Patsy seek medical attention to cure their woes.
"Death" - When her father dies, Edina faces her own mortality.
"Morocco" - What's better than a promotion fashion shoot? A promotional fashion shoot in a faraway land.
"New Best Friend" - Children ruin Edina's planned romp with some old friends.
"Poor" - The accountant has some bad news - Edina is going broke.
"Birth" - Worried that daughter Saffy is becoming sexually active, Edina reverts to mother mode.
Disc 3 - Series 3 (1995)
"Door Handle" - After a kitchen fire, Edina flies to New York to look for new accessories.
"Happy New Year" - Patsy's model sister is coming to town, and Edina's stuck entertaining.
"Sex" - Edina and Patsy are horny, and not quite sure what to do about it.
"Jealous" - Edina and her PR firm are up for an award.
"Fear" - It's a mother's worst nightmare - daughter Saffy is moving out.
"The End" - Desperate to rekindle her friendship with Patsy, Edina flies to the Big Apple.
Disc 4 - Series 4, Part 1 (2001)
"Parralox" - Edina has finally arrived at fame's doorstep.
"Fish Farm" - Hoping to land a country estate, Edina seduces a once wealthy gardener.
"Paris" - Edina and Saffy are hired to do a mother/daughter photo shoot.
"Donkey" - Inspired by Sex and the City, Edina tries to get healthy via exercise.
Disc 5 - Series 4, Part 2 (2001)
"Small Opening" - Saffy has written a play about the family, and Edina is aghast - initially.
"Menopause" - Edina fears that Patsy has entered the change of life.
Disc 6 - Absolutely Specials (1995/2001)
"Absolutely Fabulous in New York" (Gay Christmas Special) - Edina heads to NYC again, this time looking for her long lost son Serge.
"The Last Shout" - Saffy is getting married, and Edina's not happy - at least, not initially.
Disc 7 - Series 5, Part 1 (2003)
"Cleanin'" - Saffy returns to help her mother clean house.
"Book Clubbin'" - Angry that Saffy is pregnant, Edina starts a book club.
"Panickin'" - While wrestling with Minnie Driver, Edina and Patsy get locked in a panic room.
"Huntin', Shootin', & Fishin'" - Wanting to act like the hoi polloi of old, Edina buys a weekend in the country for some 'gentlemanly' sport.
Disc 8 - Series 5, Part 2 (2003)
"Birthin'" - Saffy's daughter, Baby Jane, is born.
"Schmoozin'" - Edina's new boyfriend has access to some Beatles bootlegs.
"Exploitin'" - Edina has plans to feature Saffy's newborn baby in a photo shoot.
"Cold Turkey" - It's Christmas time, and Patsy's health has taken a turn for the worse.
Disc 9 - White Box (2003)
"White Box" - Saffy, sick and tired of her mother's antics, kicks her out of the house - forever!
Absolutely Fabulous is I Love Lucy on Botox, a brilliant deconstructionist comedy made up of the medium's most mandatory elements - superb scripting, clever characterization, and even better performances. For all its groundbreaking defiance, for its flaunting of tradition within both the format and the manner of its heroines, it's as historic as that founding '50s series. There is just something so fresh, so newly found about seeing a couple of Peace Generation refugees going whole hog (and designer swine) into the new millennium, old philosophies fogged by too many evenings in the embrace of various narcotics, nightclubs, and anonymous 'relations'. At it's core, the series suggests an asexual love triangle between the dopey Edina Monsoon, her prim and far too proper daughter Saffron, and the other woman in both of their lives, snarky skeleton Patsy Stone. This battle royale between decency and debauchery, the urge for instant gratification mired by the family dynamic and social moralizing, makes up the majority of the storylines. The rest of the time, Saunders (who singlehandedly scripted every episode) explores a Britain battling against itself, a desperate to be chic country that can't quite get past its Old Blighty stiff upper lift.
The first two seasons are priceless, comedy perfection wrapped up in self-effacing humor and a desire to ridicule and mock. While some argue that Edina and Patsy make unlikely idols, the truth is that they are the perfect fabricated foils for a world long past their personal party schedule. Take "France" for example. Our duo is so dim to the reality of the arrangements - which they consider squalid in an art school funk sort of way - that they never realize they're staying in the servant's quarters. Similarly "Death" sees Edina go on a wacked out gallery spree, buying pieces of supposed sculpture and painting overflowing with enough pretense to make Andy Warhol blush. From "Poor" which places the Monsoon clan in better perspective (Edina has two ex-husbands, both battle weary from their time with the spoiled spitfire), to "Magazine", which offers the most cryptic criticism of the UK's cultural sense of anything since Monty Python, Absolutely Fabulous found dozens of ways to delve deep within the human need for happiness. That many of the examples ended up in hangovers, hospital stays, and halfhearted attempts at reconciliation illustrates Saunders' desire to push the envelope every step of the way.
There are actually two phases of the series - the original version and the slightly self-aware comeback, and the difference is interesting to behold. When the show was first struggling, bucking trends while breaking previously trodden ground, it was wildly inhibited. Jokes came at the expense of anyone and anything, and the stars weren't afraid to let their guard - or their knickers - down to keep the comedy coming. By Series 3, things started to change. Comedy Central had made the show an international hit, and a jaunt to New York (the production frequently filmed on location, all on the BBC tab) expanded their profile. While "Sex" remains a solid outing, there were moments where things seemed forced, storylines looking for a way to resolve the need to conclude the narrative with the previous desire for satire. It's no surprise then that Saunders took six years off before bringing Absolutely Fabulous back. While she needed the time to refuel her creative batteries, the show also required some settling. The return is marked by bigger budgets, more celebrity guest stars, and a broader perspective. Oddly enough, the reliance on what's current tends to date the episodes. After all, is Minnie Driver all that relevant in 2008?
Still, when confronted with a good idea - locked in a panic room, heading to the countryside for a bit of sport, welcoming the arrival of an unwanted grandchild - Absolutely Fabulous flourishes. One needs to mention the acting at this juncture, since both Jennifer Saunders (as Edina) and Joanna Lumley (as Patsy) are so pitch perfect in their roles that the thought of anyone else playing them seems like sacrilege. Oddly, enough, there have been country-specific offshoots of the series, and even Series 5's "Small Opening" offered up a lampoon look at the family (with Patsy played by a man!). As performers, both ladies use the standard straight to the rafters approach. No line reading can be too loud, no gesture too mannered or manic. Yet this fits their characters' personality to a "T", showing our harried PR specialists and a fashion magazine editor as nothing more than a couple of convicted drama queens. The Specials provide long form spice to what is already a wonderful serving of 30 minute mirth. In fact, one can imagine Absolutely Fabulous going on indefinitely (though currently no new material is planned). After all, the show defined the post-millennial media blitz. In some ways, it tramps the thirty mile zone more readily than TMZ.
Repeating the 'two distinct eras' argument again, the DVDs present as part of the Absolutely Fabulous - Absolutely Everything box set reflect this aspect of the series expertly. The first three seasons, simply ported over from previously available packages, are full screen wonders, their 1.33:1 aspect ratio designed for an early '90s broadcast ideal. Once we get to the later seasons, a widescreen presentation prevails. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is much cleaner and crisper, lacking the old school videotape fuzz of the original installments. Overall, the image is fine, though one imagines that, as the technology turns, the first episodes might be in line for a 16x9 revamp as well.
On the sound side of things, there is nothing significant here. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix delivers the dialogue with clarity, though the BBC's tendency to tweak the live audience laugh track to blot out the conversation can be irritating. In addition, some purists have balked at the suggestion that, due to right's issues, there have been song substitutions and other aural tweaks made to these installments. Sadly, this critic cannot offer any verification of this one way or another. A trip through Google's online expertise is probably in order for those who are interested.
Spread out among the nine discs, it's easier to list the added content than comment of each aspect individually. When explanation is warranted, it will come after the initial entry. First up are:
Outtakes - 15 minutes of rare ridiculousness - Discs 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7: call them bloopers or gaffs, but nothing is funnier than watching supposedly seasoned professionals fall on their as...piratrions time and time again. Between inappropriate laughter and random Tourettes like swearing, this is some hilarious stuff.
Photo Gallery - still images from the series - Discs 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8
Commentary Tracks - Jennifer Saunders and Producer Jon Plowman - Discs 4 and 5: present on all the episodes offered, Saunders and Plowman make perfect narrators. They offer insight, they dish dirt, they discuss the audience (and government reaction) to the show, and moderate the backslapping with some self-effacing criticism as well. Hearing the stories behind these installments makes one wish that there were more commentaries as part of this collection.
2 Sketches from French and Saunders: The series that started it all offers a couple of comic gems. In the first, magazine workers discuss current culture. The second is less memorable.
Pilot Episode for the series "Mirror Ball": the names may be different, but the dynamic remains. This is Ab Fab before it found its voice.
Rare Footage from the '60s of Joanna Lumley discussing modeling: she's a young girl taking Carnaby Street by storm, and this two minute interview is wonderful.
How To Be Absolutely Fabulous - Shown on Comedy Central, this name dropping exercise sees Saunders mulling over her show's success. Clips are offered as examples/explanation.
Absolutely Fabulous: A Life - More clips, this time centering on showing the rise and frequently failing of Edina Monsoon.
French and Saunders Sketch - "Modern Mother and Daughter" - with Dawn French as Saffy, this brilliant prequel to the series is solid Ab Fan material.
Perhaps the main missing bit of Absolutely Fabulous lore is an exceptional BBC overview (at one time available on YouTube) from 2004 called The Story of Absolutely Fabulous. In this special, the cast sits down and discusses intricate details of the production in a catty and insightful manner. Secrets are revealed and the reasons for the series finale are offered. Of course, the show would return for one last outing, which does limit the relevancy of the discussion in hindsight.
Phewww - nothing like revisiting the entire run of a television show from humble beginnings to big bag endings, but the brilliance of Absolutely Fabulous makes the journey well worth it. If you've been an avid collector of the DVDs since they were first released here in the Colonies, then you probably won't need to shell out more cash to buy this package. Sure, there may be things here that you don't have, but unless we're talking about actual episodes, the bonus features don't warrant a repeat. If, like this critic, you've always loved the show but were waiting until "absolutely everything" was available for purchase, this digital delight is it. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, Absolutely Fabulous continues to defy convention as it settles in for a stay as part of the medium's certified classics. While it may draw on elements that came before, there hasn't been anything remotely like this sensational series since. Frankly, it would be hard for anything to match this show's unconventional comedic approach. Most masterworks are like that.