Fresh Meat is a show by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, of Peep Show fame. Across four seasons, it concerns the lives of a houseful of university students from their initial arrival at university through to the end of their final exams.
I remember watching the first few episodes of the first season and really enjoying it, but for one reason or another I never finished watching that season. More recently, however, I’ve been watching the complete run on Netflix and enjoying it a great deal; much like one’s university life, it evolves and changes over the course of the three years/four seasons, but it manages to maintain enough coherence throughout to feel like a convincing serialised story rather than simply an episodic comedy-drama, which it could have easily turned into.
Part of the reason for its feeling of coherence is the fact that it managed to keep its core cast together for the entire run, and said cast is an excellent lineup. All of them are flawed to one degree or another, but none of them are so far beyond redemption as to become dislikeable. On the contrary, the show frequently demonstrates that behind prominent displays of bravado, there is often someone crying for help or struggling to express themselves.
One of the first characters we see in Fresh Meat is Greg McHugh’s portrayal of Howard. His first appearance is wearing only a jumper, no trousers or underpants, and drying some dead poultry on a washing line across the kitchen using a hairdryer. It would have been easy for the show to keep Howard as a deranged character, only coming out for comedy relief or gross-out factor, but even within the first episode, we quickly see that he’s been designed with a lot more thought behind him. Across the entire run, Howard actually becomes a character that it is easy to sympathise and empathise with, since in many regards he’s the character who makes the biggest strides outside his comfort zone — particularly with regard to social situations and taking perceived “risks” like asking a girl he likes out — and who manages to pick himself up repeatedly after numerous setbacks.
Zawe Ashton’s portrayal of Vod is also noteworthy, as Vod initially comes across as an arrogant, dislikeable young woman with an attitude problem. Her abrasive edge doesn’t dull throughout the entire run of the series, keeping her as a formidable person that most people would probably find tough to get close to, but piece by piece, we start to understand the difficulties she’s endured through her life and why she has ended up as the person she is. Most people probably won’t end up liking Vod as such, but we certainly understand her pretty well and can sympathise with her by the series’ end.
Kimberley Nixon’s Josie subverts the “sensible girl” trope often found in series of this nature. While initially appearing to be the cast member who has it together the most among the group, Josie’s character goes into a downward spiral early in the series, succumbing to a combination of alcoholism, stress and depression that sees her getting kicked off her dentistry course for drunkenly putting a drill through a woman’s cheek, moving to Southampton, moving back to Manchester in the hope of a relationship with fellow cast member Kingsley, and from there seemingly repeatedly sabotaging her own potential for happiness. Outwardly, Josie is one of the most cheerful, optimistic-seeming characters, but as the show progresses, she becomes one of the most tragic figures in it.
Joe Thomas’ depiction of Kingsley initially appears almost identical to his portrayal of Simon in The Inbetweeners — mostly due to his trademark rather sardonic delivery — but over time Kingsley becomes a distinctive character in his own right. Whereas Simon was fairly aloof and detached from the idiocy of the rest of the group in The Inbetweeners, Kingsley becomes a character who consistently tries too hard and often finds himself coming a cropper as a result. His relationship with Josie is initially set up to be the “Ross and Rachel” of the show through its on-again, off-again nature, but in the latter seasons in particular it becomes clear that the two are simply not right for one another. Kingsley repeatedly puts across the impression that he desperately wants to “grow up” but isn’t entirely sure how, with his attempts ranging from developing an interest in composing his own rather emo music to growing an ill-advised and rather pathetic soul patch. His desires are perhaps most explicitly demonstrated in the final season, when he gets together with an older woman and is initially ecstatic about the prospect, even when it becomes abundantly clear that she is not going to treat him well.
Charlotte Richie’s portrayal of Oregon is one of the strongest performances in the show, ironically because of how understated a lot of her delivery is. Oregon, or Melissa as she’s really called, desperately wants to appear cool and it’s immediately apparent from the outset that she’s attempted to “reinvent” herself for university life after a privileged upbringing. She has a habit of getting drawn into positions that initially seem like a good idea at the time, but which quickly turn sour. In the first season, this is exemplified through her relationship with her English tutor Professor Shales; in the final season, we see her mount a successful campaign to become Student Union president only to be lumbered with massive debt, impending legal action and the realisation that she’s little more than a “ribbon cutter” for the people who actually have power. To her credit, Oregon always tries to fight her way out of these situations and is often successful in doing so; while the adversity she encounters throughout the series is usually of her own creation — perhaps deliberately so, given the life of privilege she grew up with — she doesn’t ever buckle under the pressure, and usually comes out stronger and having learned something from her experiences. Of all the characters, she’s probably the least overtly “tragic” in one way or another; in many ways, she becomes the most admirable after initially being one of the biggest fakers there is.
Finally, Jack Whitehall’s depiction of J.P. largely consists of Jack Whitehall playing an exaggerated version of himself, but it really works, at least partly because J.P. is written as more than a one-dimensional “posho” laughing stock of a character. Over the course of the four seasons, we come to understand J.P. as a deeply confused, conflicted young man who doesn’t understand how the world works — like Oregon, he grew up with a life of privilege, but unlike her, he initially makes no attempt to reinvent himself, instead preferring to try and solve his problems by throwing money at them. In an early episode, he learns the folly of this approach when he gets taken advantage of to a ridiculous degree by his former schoolmates, and from here his growth as a character begins. Each time he proclaims that he wants to have “a large one” or that he is desperate to be regarded as “a legend”, it rings a little less true; inside, he’s a man who sees his future looming ahead, but he can’t see what lies beyond the veil at the end of his university life. That’s a scary feeling, and not just limited to university students; J.P.’s struggle to understand how life as a whole works is something that a lot of us can relate to.
All in all, Fresh Meat is an excellent (if occasionally mildly unrealistic) look at student life in the early 21st century. It captures both the soaring highs — the excitement of meeting new people and striking up relationships that may last the rest of your life; the nights out that seem like the most enjoyable, fun times ever — and the crippling lows — mounting debt; loneliness; the uncertainty of your (and everyone else’s) future — and in the process manages to depict a collection of flawed but interesting, likeable characters as they work through one of the most turbulent periods in their respective lives.