Spent review: Michelle de Swarte is a mask of fraying dignity in this seductive comedy

Money doesn’t buy happiness, or so we’re told. Told by multinational corporations whose CEOs are taking home seven-figure bonuses. Told by celebrities who don’t even have to pay for toilet roll. Told by films and television shows that make the lives of the rich and famous look so damn excitingSpent, a new six-part series on BBC Two, is about the interrelation of money and happiness, and the delicate, almost impossible, balance to be struck between the two.

Mia (Michelle de Swarte) is bankrupt. An international runway model now pushing 40, her lavish lifestyle has led to financial ruin. “I’ve got a visceral aversion to cheap s***,” she confesses to her accountant. Newly skint, she’s forced to return from her Upper East Side exile and reconnect with her roots in south London. These roots include her best friend Jo (Amanda Wilkin), her estranged parents (Juliet Cowan and Karl Collins), and the streets of SW9. Things would be easier if Mia were willing to admit that things have gone off the rails – instead, she maintains the lie of her success, all while sleeping in a hostel with a jam-licking bunkmate.

It is a familiar story, reminiscent of Schitt’s Creek and Hacks, shows about high-fliers who have to adjust to a new reality. And Mia is really no different to the former’s Alexis Rose – addicted to materialism, unwilling to defer her ego long enough to adapt. It’s the classic fish-out-of-water story combined with the ol’ reconnection with childhood haunts narrative (familiar from every naff Hallmark Christmas movie), a set-up that ladles cliche upon cliche. And yet, Spent just about manages to rise above the familiarity of its premise.

In the lead role, the show’s 43-year-old creator De Swarte – whose acting career started just four years ago in Katherine Ryan’s The Duchess – is a mask of fraying dignity. “Mia, you’re back in Brixton and you’re picking up doodoo for a white woman!” Jo despairs, but De Swarte is so statuesque and confident that she gives even the most demeaning endeavour an air of gravitas. Whether that’s waiting for a ride while doggers warm up the car bonnet (“I don’t think a suede Ugg is a good dogging shoe,” Mia warns) or photographing dalmatian defecation, Mia is never degraded for the sake of cheap laughs.

Michelle de Swarte as the newly skint Mia (BBC/Various Artists Limited/Robert Viglasky)
Michelle de Swarte as the newly skint Mia (BBC/Various Artists Limited/Robert Viglasky)

Yet she is not an easily likeable character. When Jo describes a fashion party as “Epstein Island”, Mia asks her best friend, simply, to “piss off so I can keep schmoozing Harvey Weinstein”. The scene culminates in the attempted sexual assault of a minor. De Swarte, who is drawing heavily from her own modelling experiences in the writing, might rely on well-worn set-ups, but she is unafraid to introduce a bit of edge. But that edge – that callousness – is offset with some genuine pathos. “I know where I stand,” Mia’s mentally ill father tells her, feathers protruding from his hair. “Where do you stand?”

Where does Mia stand with her work? Where does Mia stand with her family? With her best friend, and possibly lover, Jo? Where does she stand with New York? With Soho? With Brixton? And – most importantly – where does she stand with herself? Newly untethered from personal security, Mia has to rely on her natural charisma – the same charm and self-possession that took her out of London in the first place – to remedy the situation. The comedy is that of a whirlwind in a static place; Mia’s energy contrasting with the concrete brutalism around her.

Spent may lack the big yucks of its sitcom forebears (certainly the show is stylistically closer to recent British comedies like Big Mood and Boarders) but once the rather shallow premise gives way to a character study, there’s much to enjoy. At its best, the show is just like the cover girl it depicts: eye-catching and seductive.