In the opening credits of Sensitive Skin, HBO Canada’s new comedy starring Kim Cattrall and Don McKellar, time slows down. The song, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s I Put a Spell on You, is the same each time, but instead of a uniform opening sequence, McKellar – who directed all six half-hour episodes – pauses the action and lets the song play over the slowed-down scene, time stretching out like taffy.
It’s one of my favourite things about the show, based on a 2005 British series starring Joanna Lumley as a former model in the midst of a slightly-later-than-midlife crisis. Cattrall plays Davina Jackson, who moves with her husband, Alan (McKellar), from a house in Toronto’s affluent Lawrence Park neighbourhood to a downtown condo.
Although history won’t remember Cattrall with the same nostalgic fervour as someone like Isabella Rossellini – another public face who saw no reason to let age halt her career or sex appeal – she deserves more credit than we give her. Cattrall made her screen debut at 19, in Otto Preminger’s 1975 film Rosebud, and has appeared in movies or on television almost every year since. Aside from a 2005 TV documentary about sex that she hosted, Sensitive Skin is the only project in which she is credited as an executive producer.
Sensitive Skin is about aging, yes, but it aims for something both broader and more elusive than jokes about wrinkles. Davina is unhappy but she doesn’t know why; she’s reaching for something but she doesn’t know what. When her co-worker at the art gallery where she works spots her new hairdo, he predicts that a fully developed midlife crisis is trailing not far behind, complete with an affair with a younger man and a divorce. “I’m not going to leave Al,” Davina says. “I’ve been married to him for 30 years – we have a son, we have a vintage Jag. I’m not going to leave all that.”
Davina has none of Cattrall’s familiar Sex and the City swagger. She spends a lot of time in front of the mirror, her eyebrows lifting to a peak as she trails her fingers over her face. Aside from a comically uncomfortable couch she buys for her new pad, there’s not much humour to be found in Davina’s crisis of identity. She flirts with the idea of having an affair, but she’s not made to look ridiculous or pitiful for being old and wanting something new. She’s not even especially lusty, unlike the middle-aged couple in American Beauty – a deeply sexist movie in which Kevin Spacey’s character coasts through his midlife crisis in sunglasses and sweats while his wife has laughably, embarrassingly, boisterous sex with a real estate agent.
I’m happy to file Sensitive Skin under “Cancon.” It’s a shiny entry that brings something new to Canadian TV without belabouring the point. McKellar’s vision of Toronto reflects the show’s biting humour, the laugh that ends in a whimper. His lens captures a city spotted with cranes and gleaming, ice-cold towers of glass and concrete. Al and Davina’s condo – their gloomy son Orlando (Nicolas Wright) calls it a “cyber loft” – is a grey-and-white box. It’s an easy target for Davina’s sister and brother-in-law, played by Joanna Gleason and Colm Feore, who live in upscale Forest Hill. There’s a great shot of people sticking their heads out into the street, one by one, looking for that elusive streetcar.
It’s visually beautiful, sharp and moody and grey, but it’s also a depressing iteration of Toronto, pretty much the opposite of the way the city looks in Sarah Polley’s 2011 film Take This Waltz. Her Toronto is gorgeous and lush, but it’s a fantasy. Polley sets the movie in beautiful Victorian semis and funky Kensington Market storefronts and bathes the city in glowing summertime light; McKellar prefers to showcase half-finished high-rises and signs for “Condos coming soon!”
The starkness of the show’s setting seeps into its DNA. Alan seems to have a standing appointment with his doctor (Elliott Gould), a different symptom threatening his life each visit. A tickle in his throat isn’t just an irritation: “More like I sense the hint of a tumour.” Like Alan’s “cancer tickle,” there’s a sense of dread hovering over the show, a feeling in the back of the throat that you’re about to get sick.
As the show progresses, the tickle develops into a full-blown itch. Orlando finds the macabre in everything he sees (a necktie is “a cruel symbol of compliance and defeat”) and Alan is increasingly frustrated by his inability to understand or do anything about Davina’s unhappiness. Like most of its characters, Sensitive Skin can be prickly, but it’s not without warmth. It’s simply the kind of comedy that’s more comfortable sulking in the shadows than jumping off the walls.
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