Maggie Cole is a fictional television character, but we all know people like her.
And that’s what makes “The Trouble with Maggie Cole,” a six-part British dramedy premiering Sunday on PBS, at turns funny, sad, enlightening and redemptive.
Cleverly played by Dawn French (“French and Saunders,” “The Vicar of Dibley”), Maggie is the pretentious, self-important, blustery local gossip, the sort of person who runs a gift shop yet inflates that into being “the local historian” of Thurlbury, a sleepy English seaside village. On the surface, she’s harmless enough; she’s happily married to the local primary school headmaster, Peter, (Mark Heap) and pines for grandchildren (her son has been married for three years). Her power, at least in her own mind, lies in the secrets she knows — or thinks she knows — about her neighbors’ secrets and peccadilloes.
That all comes to bear when Maggie is asked to do a regional radio interview. She’s tickled at the prospect, telling anyone who will listen (with fake humility) about her “15 minutes of fame,” yet reveling in being considered someone with gravitas. The interview begins, and after a few drinks, what’s ostensibly meant to be Maggie’s waving the civic flag for Thurlbury turns into much more when, prodded, she drunkenly reveals some of the village’s “local color” — unleashing a torrent of unfounded gossip about her neighbors and literally airing everyone’s dirty laundry. The awkward situation turns downright ugly by Maggie inviting her friends, including some of the offended parties, to an outdoor barbecue to listen to her Big Moment in real time, not remember what she said through her haze of alcohol. You won’t find a more cringeworthy moment as her interview blares through several loudspeakers. #Horrifed.
The interview, of course, goes viral; Maggie becomes a meme (a green-faced witch), the local paper screams “Radiogate!” on its front page and Thurlbury is thrown for an enormous emotional loop. Her gossip targets — including her best friend (Julie Hesmondhalgh), and her doctor (Chetna Pandya) — dub themselves “The Outed Six” as Maggie tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered reputation with help from her supportive husband.
“The Trouble with Maggie Cole” does a fine job of balancing its low comedy and high drama, keeping viewers off-balance. French’s shading of Maggie is, by turns, sympathetic and unctuous, funny and pathetic. Maggie seems genuinely sorry for the grief she’s caused and tries to make amends; and strangely enough, though, several twists and turns, all might not be lost as “radiogate” continues to reverberate. French, an acclaimed actress/comedienne (her best friend and comedy partner is Jennifer Saunders from “Absolutely Fabulous”) is the right person for Maggie’s quirky mix of antagomism/protagonism, and the scenery (the series was shot in South Devon and Cornwall) is picturesque.
“The Trouble with Maggie Cole” premiered on the UK’s ITV in March to solid critical reviews; it’s to our benefit that it’s now airing on PBS so we can see for ourselves that all the plaudits were well-deserved.