The Canadian television series “Sensitive Skin” premiered on HBO Canada on July 20th, 2014. Unfortunately, viewers in the United States had to wait for another year or so before it came to Netflix. This means American audiences were lagging an entire 15 months behind Canadian ones in getting to experience one of the loveliest, saddest, funniest and certainly most underrated shows in recent memory.
“Sensitive Skin” is the story of Al and Davina, an upper-middle-class Toronto couple in their late 50s who have recently relocated from the suburbs to a modern apartment in a trendy part of the city. Al, played by the hilariously deadpan Don McKellar, is a Woody Allen-esque wisecracker with a heaping bundle of neuroses and insecurities hidden just barely beneath his caustic demeanor. His character gives the show its more overtly comedic, sitcom-y elements, and is the source of the darker, more biting humor. But one would be remiss to focus too much on Al. It’s really Davina’s show and by extension the actress who plays her, Kim Cattrall.
This is a show about a midlife crisis, a familiar rite of passage usually restricted to men played by Adam Sandler or Kevin James. Maybe that’s why Davina feels like such a radical character. She’s a woman who is pushing 60 and becoming increasingly cognizant of her own mortality and loss of desirability. It’s in the very first episode that Davina becomes aware of a problem she didn’t even know she had. In a gorgeously rendered fantasy sequence (a staple of the series), she realizes that she isn’t happy. That’s it. There’s no directive to buy a sports car or sleep with a younger man or start living life to the fullest. She simply realizes that she isn’t happy, and she doesn’t know why. In an Adam Sandler movie, now would be the time for a trip to Cabo, with ensuing slapstick hijinks. But “Sensitive Skin” isn’t interested in that kind of crisis, and Davina herself is too smart and wise to think that acting like a teenager will solve her problems.
We follow Davina over the next several months as she tries to navigate a crisis she can’t define and whose origin she can’t pinpoint. So she makes changes, some big (possibly pursuing an extramarital affair), some small (a new haircut, piano lessons). It has to be said, eventually the younger man does present himself. In her reaction to this development, Davina seems happy in her way, but is simultaneously so aware of her status as a walking cliché that she never really gets around to actually enjoying the attention. Speaking of potential romance, we must address Davina’s interactions with other would-be suitors, of whom there are several. Every time a man approaches her with romantic interest (and it’s to the series’ credit that it never tries to pretend that Kim Cattrall is anything less than a knockout), she reacts with a kind of disbelief, as though this is something she never would have expected at this stage in her life. Davina has internalized society’s undervaluation of her worth, and it’s in these moments we become fully aware of this tragedy.
All the actors involved are excellent, from Colm Feore, playing Davina’s alpha-male brother-in-law, to Elliot Gould, playing Al’s hilariously incompetent doctor. In the final episode, McKellar truly steps up his game, displaying depths of sorrow and emotion previously only hinted at. But it really is Kim Cattrall’s stomping ground. In every scene, we watch subtle hints of sadness crawl across her face; but also hope, and a slow, reluctant acceptance of the fact that maybe she does deserve happiness after all.
One could go on about individual scenes and moments. A confrontation in the final episode, in which the actual exchange is intercut with its aftermath, is a miniature master class in writing and acting. Similarly, an encounter with an old friend outside a supermarket could be a stand-alone short film. But perhaps my favorite is the opening scene of the series. Davina is invisible, blocked by a massive counter in a pharmacy. While the smug young pharmacist lectures her to age gracefully from a literal pedestal, we slowly zoom in on Davina’s increasingly angry, defiant face. She may be almost 60. She may be depressed. She may be surrounded by people who are alternately oblivious and hostile. She may even be correct in her fears that all the excitement of life is behind her. But she sure as hell isn’t going down without a fight.