Out Of Her Mind, Series 1 review: a punchy and clever view of life's difficulties


Comedian Sarah Pascoe's subversive, frank new series about family, relationships and the female body unpicks all sitcom expectations

Sarah Pascoe stars in her own new sitcom series
Comedian Sarah Pascoe stars in her own new sitcom series

“My name is Sara Pascoe and I’m going to destroy your faith in love,” says the woman roller skating around an empty warehouse in a spectacularly daft, sparkly leotard. 

Keenly aware that a spoonful of clowning helps the feminism go down, the 38-year-old comedian has treated her deliciously subversive new sitcom like a circus, in which she acts as both savvy authorial ringmaster and Socially Clueless Silly Shoes in Chief. And – like a wounded Miranda Hart with PhDs in Gender Studies, Anthropology and Neuroscience – invites viewers into a fictionalised version of her family life, with plenty of direct-to-camera action. 

The plot finds Sara as a single, intellectual but impractical woman. Her house is full of books, but lacks cutlery. Fifteen years ago she was dumped by her fiancé (Cian Barry) while trying on her wedding dress. The melodrama is winkingly Dickensian. Like a modern Miss Haversham, she still finds time to wear the ripped and dirty lace frock and she’s haunted, like Scrooge, by the teenage ghost of an aborted foetus (Jack Gleeson) who, unlike any of Scrooge’s ghosts “isn’t here to judge”. 

Fictional Sara suspects she’s unlikely to find another boyfriend because, subconsciously, she’s attracted to cheaters like her dad (maddening hippified, Nietzsche-quoting Adrian Edmonson). So she doesn't date. Or even think about anyone other than her ex. Her briskly unboundaried mother (a brutally brittle Juliet Stevenson) only advises her to diet and avoid friendship, because friends “just sleep with your husband”. 

But all of Fictional Sara’s issues come bubbling to the surface when her sister (Fiona Button) announces she’s getting married and her best friend (Cariad Lloyd) is pregnant. Torn between her compulsion to tell the truth and be kind, Sara generally responds badly to their news. 

On first sight of her sister’s engagement ring, she freezes for eight minutes – “I was trying so hard not to say the wrong thing that I couldn't say anything” – then says something appalling because: 

“I didn’t want to bring up conflict in the Congo and how problematic diamonds are, even though they are. Diamonds are shining beads of bloodshed. Also I decided not to tell her what I thought when I looked at her hand which was: oh god we’re all skeletons with meat on us. I’m really trying to hear things in my head first like you recommended.” 

Real Sara regularly interrupts the drama to offer notes on the cultural and biological drives which explain each character’s behaviour. Using lively animations and diagrams, she offers guidance on the hormones that underpin romantic and parental attachment. She describes the emotional wave of the menstrual cycle while doodling in red on a body suit decorated with a diagram of the female reproductive system. And she explains why monogamy is “a bad mating strategy” with the crisp precision of the nation’s best – if disturbingly dressed – science teacher. None of this will be a surprise to fans of her excellent book Animal: An Autobiography of the Female Body, which covers all of this in greater detail.  

While Pascoe accepts that women have to suck up the biological injustices, she’s funnier and fierier on the cultural stuff which she knows we shouldn't have to put up with and could change if she can convert enough viewers. She uses fairy stories to show how women have been given oppressive and unrealistic expectations of their lives and bodies. So Cinderella teaches women to deceive and run. Goldilocks tries to tell us never to be too much, always “just right”. And Alice in Wonderland was there to show that, no matter what we eat or drink, the door will always be locked against our hopes of happy endings. 

Pascoe with Juliet Stevenson as mum Carol and Fiona Button as sister Lucy

Fictional Sara’s best friend is a cosmetic surgeon, inhabiting the space where physical and social expectations collide. Her role allows to joke about – and sympathise with – a man who’s been repeatedly told his penis resembles a mouse “with ears and whiskers”. She also deals with baby weight and breast implants, although does get the opportunity (as she did in her first book) to point out that women who have breast enlargements are two to three more times likely to kill themselves than women who don’t. 

In every cafe and bar Fictional Sara is served by the same increasingly exasperated black woman (Cash Holland) who’s driven to demand her own narrative. She’s given a neat twist towards the end, although she was still not allocated as much real personality as she deserves. 

Pascoe's taste for the absurd means we're treated to some snort-out-loud exercise classes featuring moves called things like "tear the loaf" and "throw the fish!" This insanity is placed neatly beside the craziness of the wedding industry.   

The killer moments come when Pascoe drops the sitcom prankery and gets real. Like the moment she puts on a genuinely “serious hat” to discuss her teenage abortion. Fans will know how close the plot sails to her real life: the jazz musician dad who cheated on her single mum, that termination and the Big Break Up (with fellow comedian John Robbins – both turned their heartbreak into hit shows). There’s even a moment when her mother wears white to her daughter’s wedding – something Pascoe’s own mum did when her sister got hitched. 

Some of the characters are brilliant. Stephenson, in particular, is an extraordinarily self-obsessed and un self-aware mother. Her lips are perma-puckered in bitterness and she’s never more than five inches from a glass of wine. Tom Stuart is also outstanding as Fictional Sara’s future brother-in-law. In counterpoint to Sara’s ex and father, he’s the “Ideal Husband”. And also, alas, the fantasy of a female author. 

I won’t spoil it here, but the series ending unpicks all sitcom expectations. After all the punchy cleverness, it drifts into rather strained, Am-Drammy terrain. Although what occurs is challenging enough to make me ask if my dissatisfaction was Pascoe's fault, or a consequence of my own cultural conditioning. 

I'm a big believer in acknowledging the sadness and difficulty of life. I love the way the current crop of female comedians have brought it so frankly to our screens, stripping away centuries of shame and secrecy. But I worry that a woman I admire as much as Pascoe seems to think disappointment is our lot. Because I think that, once we've seen through all the cultural crap she so wittily dismantles, we're free to be much, much happier.