The plot revolves around the lives of six students, Vod, Oregon, Josie, Kingsley, JP and Howard, who are freshers (with the exception of Howard) at the fictional Manchester Medlock University, Manchester. They live in a shared house off-campus in Rusholme rather than university halls of residence, due to their late application.
Main themes include Oregon's insecurity and failed relationship with her lecturer, Tony Shales; Vod's hedonistic, care-free lifestyle; Josie and Kingsley's tortured relationship; JP's attempts at popularity and impressing girls; and Howard's many eccentricities. On a larger scale, the series covers many student-related issues, including financial issues, work pressures and grades, expulsion, partying, and internship competition.
Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain created Fresh Meat's characters and wrote the first episode whilst watching The Young Ones on VHS; subsequent episodes were written by other writers. Bain has explained the reasons for this approach: "We always imagined this as a team-written show partly for practical reasons because Peep Show has been recommissioned, and moving forward if we're lucky enough to get another series of Fresh Meat we simply couldn't write two shows at once. So we always knew we wanted to bring other writers on board, some are more experienced, some very talented women writers, and one who had just graduated when we started writing."
Channel 4 announced that a second series had been commissioned in October 2011. Filming completed in August 2012, and started broadcasting the following October. A third series was confirmed via Twitter following the second series' finale. Writer Sam Bain has confirmed his intention to write a fourth season, although there has yet to be confirmation of a recommissioning.
Zawe Ashton as Violet "Vod" Nordstrom: A literature student and former Forces child, she is studying at the university on an RAF Officer Bursary. Vod appears streetwise, forthright, completely care-free and alludes to having anti-establishment views. In fact, this personality is a facade, masking her severe insecurity, a personality that is complemented by her somewhat faux gothic dress sense, and her pretence of having multiple sex partners, although all the other female cast have far more sexual contacts during the series than her. She is the life and soul of any party, often drinks too much (a middle aged writer died from consuming the same amount as her) and takes soft drugs. Her university grades are poor and regularly talks Oregon into allowing her to plagiarize her work. Despite her beliefs, she is fond of Oregon, who is from a privileged background, and helps her through some of her most difficult phases. Her insecurity is later revealed to have been a result of her childhood problems, during which she was mistreated by her violently alcoholic mother, Chris, who refers to her as "the millstone around my neck."
Greg McHugh as Howard McGregor: A Scottish geology student who is older than the others, having previously done a year in Philosophy but changed courses after disagreements with professors. Howard is eccentric, socially inept and has many strange mannerisms. He is also the only non-fresher in the house. With the exception of his housemates, he has few friends, but is usually friendly and well mannered. The housemates tend to approach him with caution, and his behaviour has occasionally cost them popularity. He does not socially interact very often, but has had a sexual fling with former housemate Sabine, and took a liking to Sam in the early parts of the third series. In the fifth episode of the third series, he is shown to be somewhat attracted to Candice. His surname changes repeatedly throughout the series — in series 1, it is Rowbottom; in series 2, it is MacCallum; and in series 3, it is McGregor.
Kimberley Nixon as Josephine "Josie" Jones: A pharmacology student from Cardiff, who previously took dentistry and afterwards zoology. While initially coming across as sensible, shy and sweet natured, Josie soon turns out to be quite stubborn, short-tempered and selfish. In addition, she is something of an alcoholic, although she later tries to turn over a new leaf in series 3 when it lands her in trouble. Her personality problems are most often seen in her interactions with Kingsley, with whom she has a complicated and tortured relationship, a result of their mutual attraction. While the two started off on amiable terms, the sexual tension between them grew as a result of numerous heart-to-heart conversations through the paper-thin wall separating their rooms, which was complicated by her failing relationship with boyfriend and later fiance Dave. In the second series, this becomes even further fraught when Kingsley forms a relationship with her new friend, Heather. Josie moves to Southampton to study zoology at the end of the second series, having been kicked off her dentistry course. By the third series, they are able to finally form a relationship, and Josie returns to Manchester to take pharmacology. However, numerous attempts at making their relationship work, including a bonding trip, a "relationship amnesty" and exploring an open relationship, only led to further emotional pain for both. The two reluctantly decided to take a break from each other at the end of the third season to ensure that they did not damage their friendship as well. She takes beta blockers, implying she suffers from anxiety or stress, or even a heart condition. She does not demonstrate much interest in politics, instead making sarcastic comments about contentious political issues.
Charlotte Ritchie as Melissa "Oregon" Shawcross: Oregon is a literature student and, like JP, from a privileged background. An idealist, Oregon is paranoid about how she is perceived by her peers, and believes that her privileged upbringing will negatively affect this. When she first arrives at university, she gives herself the nickname "Oregon," makes a clear effort to hide her background, and immediately befriends Vod, the most outgoing and party-loving of the housemates. She attempts to emulate Vod in as many ways as possible, enthusiastically agreeing with every anti-establishment or anti-elitist view Vod expresses even if she is guilty of what Vod is criticising. Despite discovering the truth about Oregon, Vod remains genuinely fond of her, and the two are close friends. She embarks on an affair with her lecturer, Tony Shales, and later unknowingly forms a relationship with his son, Dylan. The relationships end at the end of the second series. Oregon fancies herself as a political ideologue, but often displays a lack of world-wariness.
Joe Thomas as Kingsley Owen: A geology and previously drama student from Essex, who has only just been let off the leash after having spent many years living on a council estate, caring for his sick mother. He is friendly and charming, and more measured than everyone else, but is also incredibly insecure, unconfident and prone to making rash decisions that he comes to regret. In addition, he is afraid of confrontation and causing distress, but his efforts to avoid these situations inadvertently cause more problems for him. He is also an aspiring musician. He has a tortured relationship with Josie, a result of the two both sharing a mutual attraction to one another. Despite claiming to have had many sexual encounters in the past, he later reveals that he is a virgin, and after a fling with drama student Ruth, is no longer a virgin. He started a relationship with Josie in the third series, but reluctantly agrees to take a break from her at the end of the season in order to salvage what was left of their friendship. Unlike his housemates, who are largely ignorant and idealistic, Kingsley has a reasonably advanced political compass, and his political preference is often hinted to be centre-left.
Jack Whitehall as Jonathan "J.P." Pembersley: J.P. is a geology student and an Old Stoic who failed to get into a 'proper' university. He is arrogant, has an air of cockiness and entitlement about him, and tends to look down on his fellow students. Kingsley, who lives on a council estate, will often respond to his condescending and arrogant comments by attacking his privileged background. Unlike Oregon, he is open about his privileged background, and speaks with a posh accent. His efforts to appear 'cool', often lead him into trouble but, despite his personality flaws, he is secretly very sensitive and insecure. His failed attempt to court Sam in the third series led him to feel heartbroken and downcast, showing his vulnerability. He demonstrates no obvious interest in politics.
This section requires expansion with: Sabine, Candice. (January 2014)
James Musgrave as Toby (Series 1–2) - an Old Stoic, and acquaintance of J.P's
Paul Lamb, "the Invisible Man", (series 1) – an unseen housemate whose presence in (and absence from) the house is barely noticed.
Tony Gardner as Professor Tony Shales (series 1–) – Oregon's charming English lecturer and love interest.
Sara Stewart as Professor Jean Shales (series 1–2) – Tony's wife, whom Oregon initially idolises.
Robert Webb as Dan (series 1–2) – Kingsley, JP and Howard's geology lecturer.
Jack Fox as Ralph (series 1–) – an Old Stoic from JP's year, and an acquaintance of his.
Jelka van Houten as Sabine (series 2–) – a Dutch PhD student who replaces Paul Lamb as a housemate.
Sophie Wu as Heather (series 2–) – a British Hong Konger dentistry student and friend of Josie's who begins to date Kingsley causing friction in hers and Josie's friendship.
Adam Gillen as Brian (series 1) – a nerdy young man who befriends Howard.
Gemma Chan as Ruth (series 1) – a drama student who takes a shine to Kingsley.
Ben McGregor as Dave (series 1) – Josie's boyfriend and fiancée.
Ronan Raftery as Dylan Shales (series 2) – Oregon's boyfriend, who turns out to be the son of Professors Jean and Tony Shales.
Faye Marsay as Candice Pelling (series 3) – a first-year literature student who is a new tenant in the house in the third series.
Hannah Britland as Sam (series 3) – a love interest for JP and Howard, over whom they fight, and later a friend and potential love interest for Kingsley.
Peter Gadiot as Javier (series 3) – Vod's Mexican holiday fling, whom she marries in an attempt to dump him.
Critical reaction to the first series' opening episodes was mixed, with reviews becoming more positive as the series progressed.The Guardian gave the opening episode a very positive review, finding it "sharp" and "refreshingly gag-dense".The Independent's review was also positive, saying "what really holds the thing together is an underlying sympathy, the sense that these characters might be comically foolish but they aren't (with some exceptions) contemptible."
However, Michael Deacon in The Daily Telegraph called the opening episode's script "a torrent of prattling self-hatred" and found the episode "drainingly bleak". Rupert Christiansen, also in the Telegraph, was similarly unimpressed, calling it "[p]athetically laboured and over-acted" and "limply written and predictable". Rachel Cooke of New Statesman felt the opening episode was a "damp squib" and commented that this might be because "the writers failed to remember that going to university is also rather melancholic, what with all the loneliness, the strange and soon-to-be-shed new friends and the general exhaustion of trying to act cool and grown-up".
By the end of the first series, the Radio Times said the show had been "full of well-worked plotlines and gorgeous character comedy", and The Daily Telegraph praised "the series' admirable habit of stirring pathos into the flow of gags" as well as complimenting the scripts and performances.The Guardian felt it had "managed to live up to sky-scraping expectations", and Metro said "Originally billed as a university version of The Inbetweeners, Fresh Meat has developed into something much more sophisticated than its more-established sibling."
The second series continued to receive positive reviews, with The Observer declaring the second episode "almost an hour of laugh-out-loud comic astuteness that single-handedly restored faith in the British ability to be funny", while The Independent on Sunday said "First time round, the student sitcom was chipper but clunky fare. But, just as its fresher gang have grown up, so the whole thing has become sharper, wiser, and more lovable".
The third series also continued to receive positive reviews. Andrew Collins of The Guardian identified some similarities between Fresh Meat and The Young Ones, but he suggested that "to say that Fresh Meat is a Young Ones for the Jägerbomb generation does neither show justice" and said "The Young Ones was like being picked up by the lapels and repeatedly shaken. Fresh Meat is more like being invited to stay". Collins also recognised Jack Whitehall's performance as J.P. and refuted Jonathan Ross's quip at the British Comedy Awards that, as an actor, Whitehall has "less range than a North Korean missile", adding that Whitehall's performance deepens with each episode.
Thomas H. Green of The Arts Desk wrote that, after "rocky" earlier episodes of the third season, the finale of the third season of Fresh Meat had "retrieved its sterling reputation". Green suggested the circumstances in the seventh episode of the season were incredible and "reality was pushed too far" but conceded that the finale delivered, with Kingsley and Josie's "soul-wringing, half-hearted" attempt at an open relationship and then the "wrenching" dissolution of their relationship for the sake of their friendship; Vod's wildly promising run at president of the student union and then sabotaging her own campaign to mend her friendship with Oregon, who wins but inherits dire straits facing the student union and its executive; the development and progression of Howard and Candice's relationship, culminating in romance; and JP, who "applies for a position" with (or attempts to seduce) Josie (who is in an open relationship) via a PowerPoint presentation, moves on from Sam, cleans the house and attempts to sell it, and laments that he is "horny".