We're all familiar with the publicity shitshow of celebrity scandal. We could take it way back to the Clinton affair, or Kim Kardashian's sex tape, or the time Cheryl (née Tweedy) assaulted a toilet attendant at a nightclub. As I type, the internet is currently riled by Khloe Kardashian's cheating husband and Malia Obama's penchant for rosé wine. Like it or loathe it, news of what the rich and famous have been up to – the salacious or the inconsequential – is part of the pop culture fabric. But have you ever considered the stories we don't hear about?
Enter Robyn, an American woman working at a female-run London PR firm and the protagonist of the wild new drama Flack. Robyn's speciality is celebrity crisis management. It's her job to make sure the press doesn't get wind of a pro footballer's coke-fuelled sexual exploits with his secret gay lover. She's the one who makes sure that the beloved TV chef's affair doesn't make the front page of the tabloids. She's no Olivia Pope (oh, we miss you Scandal) but she packs a terrifyingly effective punch.
When we first meet our leading lady (played by Anna Paquin), she's giving the aforementioned footballer's 'friend' CPR in a fancy hotel room, after being called in to clean up the mess that her client was one 999 call away from. She revives him, ushers them on their way and takes a hit of their coke on the way out. Just another day at the office.
Soon she's assigned another charge: Anthony Henderson, the television chef and national treasure who has slept with 99% of the young women he has encountered. Robyn's solution? Conjure up some sympathy from the public and bury the news of the affair. She plans to trick Henderson's wife into getting a mammogram, leak it to the press and paint Henderson as the world's most supportive husband. Appalling, yes, but it kind of works.
There's no doubt that Robyn is good at her job. She's respected by her hedonistic colleague Eve (Lydia Wilson) and despotic boss Caroline (Sophie Okonedo). But there's a lot going on in her personal life that fuels her fierce commitment to the job and challenges her relationships outside of work.
In a standout scene from the first episode, she delivers an impassioned monologue to Henderson, who she has taken to a hotel room to calm down as the threat of his affair going public looms. He's moaning about how his fucking around and having affairs is "a disease like diabetes" which he shouldn't be crucified (by the press) for, because he's a "decent" bloke. "It goes both ways. I've had my fair share of clumsy passes from drunken women," he pines. "If I were a woman we wouldn't be having this conversation, what's the difference?"
While you rage in disbelief from the other side of the TV screen, Robyn scolds him for his predatorial behaviour and gives him the full lowdown on what it's like to be a woman. How "every male you encounter has the potential to rape and murder you, followed by a life of pre-sexualisation, catcalling and slut shaming that fills you with so much guilt and fear that when you're 16 and some kid starts choking you during sex, either with hands or his penis because he saw that in a bunch of porn, you assume that it must be you who got it wrong. So every time there’s an inappropriate comment or a hand on your thigh, you swallow it."
You'll exhale in a strange wash of relief at watching someone put a complicated feeling we've all experienced into such ball-punching words. And they have sex in the bathroom after a brief but strange back and forth about Robyn's inner demons when she questions why he hasn't made a move on her yet. No, the whole interaction doesn't seem to make immediate sense to Robyn, either. But it happens and Robyn swiftly heads back to the office to clean up some other messes.
Though the show circulates around heavy, timely topics, there are moments when it feels like a bit of a parody of what many imagine celebrity PR management to have looked like back in the '00s. It's not glam at all – a lot of what Robyn has to do is pretty compromising and you'll be incredibly fascinated by her character development. As for how far it mirrors the IRL goings on in the crisis management world, we can't really tell you. It's wild, fascinating and a little bit ridiculous. But there are a few standout moments that, at the very least, will make you cringe, chuckle and gawp in disbelief.
Flack is on W from 21st February at 9pm