When single mother Costello Jones (Daisy May Cooper) is booted from her subsidized London flat in the first moments of HBO’s new dramedy Rain Dogs, it’s still early in the day. Costello and her preteen daughter, Iris (Fleur Tashjian), have to hold their heads high as they stroll past looky-loo neighbors and cops, well before anyone has had time for a spot of tea. “Poverty porn, at its finest!” Costello yells to the crowd, swinging a trash bag of her possessions over her shoulder.
Costello’s declaration could just as well serve as Rain Dogs’ logline. The eight-episode first season, which begins airing weekly on March 6 and streams on HBO Max, follows Costello and Iris, as they try their best to navigate the massive wall of socioeconomic forces forged against them. The show takes a linear-yet-scattered approach to telling an untidy story. Episodes jump through time as Costello, an aspiring writer, hunts for new solutions to a problem always nipping at her heels—our only sense of time coming from Costello’s sober-tracker app.
Despite its chaotic narrative, Rain Dogs manages to craft a powerful and blisteringly authentic portrait of modern perseverance. The series is crass, off-color, and vibrantly British, but it never feels offensive or melodramatic, despite its mordant handling of heavy subjects. With sharp writing and an undeniably brilliant central performance from Cooper, Rain Dogs is set to be the dark horse of the spring television season.
Created by playwright and author Cash Carraway, Rain Dogs explores similar subjects to what’s found in Carraway’s 2019 memoir, Skint Estate. From its premiere alone, it’s quite clear that the series isn’t a tale of poverty thrust through a studio filter. Costello and Iris’ story borrows from Carraway’s own experiences; the grime between the lines is real, not plastered on by some exploitative Hollywood hack. Yes, these misadventures of a mother and the daughter that she’d do anything for are often frustrating, but that’s life. All too often, one step forward pushes us 600 steps back, as we fall back on our asses each time we try to get back up.
But Costello’s not entirely alone, either. Unfortunately, that’s part of her problem. Costellos’ best friend Gloria (Ronke Adekoluejo) is just as dysfunctional as Costello, only on another end of the spectrum of hard living. Gloria can take Iris on nights when Costello has to work peep shows on the seedy side of London, or while she’s hunting for other sex work to try to make ends meet. All of these sordid experiences will hopefully, one day, result in a bestselling memoir. “Like Oliver Twist, with big tits,” Costello imagines.
Her penchant for indulging in life’s most noxious thrills for the sake of her writing has kept Costello reluctantly in touch with Selby (Jack Farthing), her best friend from University. Costello and Selby’s dynamic gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase “toxic relationship,” as viewers find out when Selby is released from prison at the start of the series. Selby might be everything Costello isn’t—gay, posh, and obnoxiously wealthy—but somehow, they get along. Selby loves and cares for Iris as if she’s his own daughter, and Iris is the one thing that doesn’t keep her mother and father figure from tearing each other apart.
Selby’s weekly allowance from his estranged mother is given to Costello and Iris with abandon, propping them up, only to bring them tumbling down again when he’s inevitably cut off for more bad behavior. After all, Selby has a penchant for punching the goons that Costello brings into her orbit. It’s often difficult to ascertain which of Costello and Selby’s actions toward one another are done out of love, and which are done out of hate. But their pernicious bond illustrates how incredibly difficult it can be to extricate yourself from a bad situation, once you’re steeped in it—the same way Costello must constantly hack through the suffocating weeds of her economic class.
Rain Dogs has a new surprise at every turn, and not all of them are particularly cheery. Costello cleans the apartments of perverts (whom she has a keen affinity for, most of the time) while they masturbate to her dumping dirty mop water down a sink. She’s tricked by newspaper hucksters trying to sanitize her story for the snooty moms at Iris’ school. She’s fooled into modeling a nightgown for a lowly chap offering her a place to sleep. But she’s resourceful as hell, unwilling to let any of the mountainous things that stand in her way keep her from climbing.
Cooper is a revelation as Costello. She’s brash and hilarious as she threads the needle that stitches together her character’s dual life. Magnetic as any seasoned performer, it’s a shock she hasn’t yet broken out across the Atlantic—especially with two BAFTA wins under her belt. But Rain Dogs, which was produced in association with the BBC, just might be the heralding of a new comedic star in the States as well. Opposite Cooper, Farthing casts a gleefully demented glow as Selby, melding together the two most charismatic, British Grants: Hugh and Richard E., naturally.
While the series often ricochets between farcical and dramatically dour at a madcap pace, its would-be slapdash construction works in its favor. Each episode of Rain Dogs is no more than 27 minutes long, allowing viewers a nice taste of Costello’s acerbity without ruminating too much on the intrinsic darkness of her situation. We’re allowed to live this story through her eyes: trying to value the good and toss out the bad. In order for things not to plod or become histrionic, they have to keep moving. And that’s just what Rain Dogs and Costello do so effectively: stay in flux.
Each episode of Rain Dogs opens with a title card in a glowing, script font straight out of the marketing campaign for Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled. That title card alone highlights exactly what the series does so well: contrasting the inevitable grit of its premise with undeniable, unexpected beauty at the heart of Costello and Iris’ relationship.
Rain Dogs certainly won’t be for everyone—least of all those who don’t enjoy caustic, dark English humor—but that’s why it’s so surprising. Here’s one of the first series of the year that doesn’t try to operate on a scale of mass appeal. Instead, it’s focused on itself, making sure that its characters find a way forward for a satisfying tale of what real tenacity looks like.