Kim (Olivia Hallinan) is a queer 15-year-old virgin and the heroine of “Sugar Rush,” a terrific British TV series based on Julie Burchill’s teen novel. The first two (of 10) episodes debut on here TV! Feb. 6 and continue with two half-hour shows broadcasting every other week. This series smartly addresses teen sexuality and all of the pleasure, awkwardness and heartbreak that goes with it.
Kim and her family have moved to “sin city, the capital of sleaze” that is Brighton, England, to escape the “excess” of London. Dad Nathan (Richard Lumsden) is a milquetoast, while mom Stella (Sara Stewart) is maternally unfit. Kim, however, is in the midst of grappling with growing up. In the show’s opening moments, she’s fantasizing about kissing her best friend Sugar (Lenora Crichlow), aka Maria Sweet, with the help of an electric toothbrush.
Kim, as it is quickly revealed, is sexually obsessed with Sugar, and it’s easy to see why. Sugar has a personality as alluring as her body. She’s a shameless flirt, and Sugar always gets what she wants — sometimes by just taking it (she has a penchant for shoplifting). Kim, of course, is attracted to Sugar like a moth to a flame. And viewers will know right away why Sugar makes Kim’s heart “race like a rocket” and how someone so desirable will “rot her teeth.”
Yet the friendship between the two girls — one dominant and dangerous, the other a wallflower slowly coming out of her shell — feels fresh here, even if it is as old as time. A heart-to-heart chat these teens share in the series’ final episode may actually jerk tears because it feels so real. Even if the situations the characters find themselves in are strained for dramatic effect, there is poignancy to the emotions.
While the self-absorbed Sugar is initially oblivious to Kim’s same-sex longings, “Sugar Rush” still generates considerable sexual tension between the girls, complete with near-miss kisses. The show does not waste too much time before it addresses the issue of Kim’s sexuality, and the impact of this revelation on Sugar. Even if her first efforts at coming out result in a clumsy miscommunication, the dynamics of Kim’s un-closeted life do shift, and the aftershocks have a noticeable effect on her relationship with Sugar.
It should be noted that “Sugar Rush” is one of those series in which each episode builds from the previous week even though minor problems are generally resolved before the credits. Yet, the program thankfully relies on flashbacks in every episode (and the pre-credit sequence always features a recap of what has happened), which brings viewers who missed a program up to date. Still, it’s foolish to skip an episode as each one is a delight.
Despite the teenage angst, there are several laugh-out-loud moments in the series. Sometimes they are throwaway ones — Kim recounting past chats with the lying Stella — and sometimes they are fully developed storylines, as when Stella borrows Kim’s jeans and discovers an unwanted surprise that makes her crabby.
Yet what makes this series so engaging is the way the B story involving Nathan and Stella’s crumbling relationship acts as a strong counterpoint to Kim’s relationship with Sugar. In the first episode, Kim catches her mother having sex with a hunky male decorator. Her family difficulties eventually force her to spend the night with Sugar. The big sleepover is “frustratingly platonic,” but when things go poorly with Sugar, her parents’ situation seems to improve.
The see-sawing nature of these difficult relationships prompt Kim to become empowered as in one episode in which Kim acts as the go-between for both her parents and Sugar and her French-speaking boyfriend. The combined situations drive Kim to the breaking point, but it also enables her to get what she wants from Sugar. There is joy in seeing this vulnerable teen start standing up for herself.
Even when “Sugar Rush” has a silly storyline — as when Kim wants to drug Sugar and date rape her, or she attends an ex-gay meeting at a local church — the events don’t derail the plotting. In most cases, they actually enhance it. Suffice it to say, the creators (screenwriters Burchill and Katie Baxendale, among others) have given every character a smart, touching narrative arc that allows them to grow. That said, the family’s finances are seriously abused without consequence, and there are a few slang terms (e.g., “minger”) that may go over the heads of American audiences.
Throughout the show, Kim talks about falling for the wrong person, or liking someone who makes you feel miserable, but these feelings are what all of the characters — Kim, Sugar, Stella and others — experience. Late in the series, there is a fantastic scene in which Kim’s next-door neighbor, Tom, a teen suffering from romantic despair, has a talk with his gay father about his feelings. The exchange, which could have been sappy or which could have easily been cut from the show’s central drama, is quite moving. “Sugar Rush” cares that much for its characters. Furthermore, although Sugar is frequently objectified — she does jump on a trampoline in a skirt without underwear — the show is amusing, not pandering.
The actors are perfectly cast in their roles. Hallinan blossoms before the viewers’ eyes as Kim transforms over the course of the season. Looking very much the child in the early episodes, she becomes more mature and more self-assured as her character turns into an out and proud young woman. Hallinan makes Kim’s every moment credible. (Viewers, however, may have to get past her quasi-resemblance to Lindsay Lohan.) As her coconspirator, Crichlow is equally fine as Sugar. This young actress is very convincing as a mercurial, sexually active and wise-beyond-her-years-but-still-fragile teenager.
Crichlow’s magnetism with Hallinan is what makes “Sugar Rush” addicting. And every episode in this series will have viewers craving more.