“You think being fun is easy because it comes easy to you,” says Birdy (Bel Powley) to lifelong best friend Maggie (Emma Appleton), trying to cheer her up at the end of an evening, “but being fun is naht easy! You’re someone who actually likes skinny dipping, and wearing bandanas, and playing snooker at the pub and putting hot sauce on everything. That’s special.”
How much patience you have for Everything I Know About Love – a loose adaptation of Dolly Alderton’s 2017 memoir of the same name, with Alderton serving as screenwriter and producer here too – likely depends on your reaction to those lines. Is that special? Is it a celebration of finding joy in the mundane, or does it speak to a very narrow collection of experiences – if it is, either of them, is it knowingly so? There’s a sense that Everything I Know About Love is, maybe, Main Character Syndrome: The Series, with all of the pitfalls and drawbacks that implies; it so acutely captures such a particular vibe that, accurate or not, it’s difficult to watch at times.
It’s 2012. Maggie and Birdy have just graduated, and they’re moving into their first home, a houseshare with university friends Nell (Marli Siu) and Amara (Aliyah Odoffin). It’s something they’ve been looking forward to for years, and the excitement is palpable: they’re best friends, the four of them, but Maggie and Birdy especially so. Everything that Maggie knows about love isn’t, in the end, what she’s learned from brief flirtations and one-night stands, it’s everything about her friendship with Birdy. It’s what she’s learned from 2am makeovers and sharing dinner and MSN nostalgia, from consoling each other when they’re sad and celebrating together when they’re happy, from always being the first person the other calls, no matter what.
Until, at least, Birdy meets Nathan (Ryan Brown), and begins her first adult romantic relationship. Very suddenly, Birdy has one foot out the door of their new life, before it’s even really begun. It’s a series about love, and it’s a series about a painful, drawn-out breakup, but not a romantic one – it’s about how lifelong best friends fall out of love, how it can become too difficult to even be in the same room as someone who just a few months earlier was the most important person in your life for a decade.
There’s a lot about the series that feels incisive. For a lot of its runtime, it’s a strikingly accurate portrait of selfishness, rendered with genuine subtlety and insight: Maggie is deliberately, fantastically self-centred, at once airily dismissive of Birdy’s relationship and plainly threatened by it. Everything I Know About Love is a thorough interrogation of Maggie’s – but, really, everyone’s – worst instincts when confronted with change. She’s competitive, making her own less than earnest declarations of love; she’s manipulative, subtly trying to break them up; she’s obsessive, closely tracking how much hot water Nathan uses whenever he visits; she’s desperately lonely, and entirely refuses to communicate that to herself or anyone else.
Emma Appleton is remarkable here. They all are, really – Bel Powley is pitch perfect as the formerly timid friend finding new self-confidence, and you’ll constantly wish the series had found more to spend with Marli Siu and Aliyah Odoffin, both of whom are nothing short of a gift – but it’s Appleton’s series first and foremost still. She’s playing the loosely-fictionalised version of Alderton, and that portrait of selfishness is held together by Appleton; there’s little concession to any sort of “main characters must be likeable” mentality, from how Maggie treats her friends to the earnest insistence that her problems stem from being “overloved” by her parents, and Appleton more than meets the challenge, tempering that offputting quality and eliciting real sympathy.
In a sense, that brings us back to where we started. Everything I Know About Love is, if nothing else, entirely and completely itself: there’s a purity of vision and consistency of worldview that’s confident, unapologetic, and for some will be deeply offputting. It’s nostalgic for yesterday’s loves and losses, but it’s still ultimately the nostalgia of a Sunday Times columnist who went to a string of private schools. An unflattering account of your own flaws – even a fictionalised version of them – isn’t self-deprecating, it’s self-aggrandising, and at its most indulgent Everything I Know About Love can be overwhelming.
A scene where Amara calls out Maggie for day-to-day microaggressions feels written specifically as an opportunity for later self-congratulation, and including a single chaste kiss with a woman in amongst a montage of Maggie’s wild living raises the question of whether this is just set in 2012 or if it was made in 2012 too. That aforementioned definition of fun – bandanas, snooker, hot sauce – leads into “maybe the cost of being that special is always being overdrawn,” and the way Maggie floats through life speaks to a privilege that the series isn’t as self-aware about as it clearly thinks it is.
All of that is to say, anyway, is that there are bits of Everything I Know About Love that are best watched with your eyes pre-rolled. With that caveat established, though, there’s still much of it worth recommending: Appleton, Powley, Siu, and Odoffin have joyous chemistry together, and it’s genuinely heartening to see a platonic breakup treated with the same weight usually given to romantic relationships. The sixth and seventh episodes – a confrontation between the group and its aftermath – are towering achievements for a first-time screenwriter, and the final image of the series is bracing. Otherwise, though, Everything I Know About Love won’t, can’t, and in fairness maybe even doesn’t need to be for everyone.
Everything I Know About Love starts on BBC One on Tuesday 7 June at 10:40pm, with every episode available to stream on iPlayer as a boxset. I’ve seen all 7 episodes before writing this review.