A Jonathan Van Ness figure skating cameo? Sign me up, I said.
Then, I stayed.
At first glimpse, Spinning Out looks to be another show about the unrealistic demands of sports moms chasing their dreams through their children. January Jones (Madmen) plays a former figure skating star whose daughters wake at grueling hours and have paid brutal physical tolls to perform in her stead. Her eldest daughter, Kat (Kaya Scodelario), exists in a state of constant worry and tension for herself and her younger sister, Serena (Willow Shields).
As an audience we watch Kat try and recover after a head injury on the ice nearly killed her during a routine. Early into the process of getting back on the ice, we learn that both Carol (January Jones) and Kat suffer from the effects of bipolar disorder. The series ebbs and flows with the choices each make separately to stay off their medication (Lithium, as is common for bipolar treatment) and get back on. The choice is between limitless manic energy that will ultimately end in a crash, or more balanced but “fuzzier” living.
Both Kat and her mother are trying to live in a world where they are accepted for who they are while also apologizing for the illness that yanks who they are out from under them. Jones cuts a parental figure who is harsh at times, puts her daughters through hell when she is manic, but loves fiercely and tenderly when she is well. Scodelario shows the harsh edges of a girl in her early twenties trying to outdo her mother in her treatment and wellness. Her refrain is, “I will not be like you.” In reality, she follows a similar path – a path we are forced to watch in angst.
For me, this tension between the very real energy demands of life as a figure skater – or as a single mother – and the necessity to be in control of thoughts and actions is really where the show shines. Too many shows gloss over the lived effects of mental health episodes. Not here. Carol openly struggles with money because of her episodes. Mental health stigma dictates who the families tells about missed practices and family drama and what they say. Many of the episodes function within in the confines of the cage experienced by those who are sick and out of options. You’ll get a pit in your stomach. That’s how it should feel when mental health is being addressed realistically.
To undercut some of this angst, the turmoil of Spinning Out plays out in an idyllic background. The scenery is that of an Olympic village in Idaho, a beautiful ski lodge, figure skating routines that leave you breathless to watch. There’s a rich, misunderstood heir to play a romantic lead. There’s a black skiing love interest clumsily given some racial issues as a story line. There’s a sexual abuse scandal involving Kat’s sister brewing underneath the surface. If this all sounds like a fanfic run amok, it could have been, but the show’s creators took great care to acknowledge the absurdity of their world when necessary.
In its essence, this figure skating show is a drama-packed sports romantic comedy tackling the question of relating mental illness without downplaying the suffering of those involved. The connection and compassion I felt for Carol and Kat is a giant credit to Samantha Stratton, the show’s creator. Other issues portrayed well in the show are those of body shaming and food control, finding meaning outside of your job, the pressure of perfectionism and refusing to acknowledge reality, and how to choose oneself without being left behind.
Some call it “trashy,” but I think the show is more self-aware than meets the eye. Stratton and the showrunners created a show that draws you in with sparkle and keeps you around with substance. Watch the drama unfold while you cheer your favorite skater back into the rink.