It’s a regrettable fact of life that secret families are made for television. The lies, the devastation, the sexual insatiability — this kind of filial agony just naturally lends itself to entertainment. We tend to think of mistresses, polygamy, hush-hush paternity and out-of-wedlock children as high-concept fodder for telenovelas. Yet, a number of TV series in the past few years have tackled real-life scandals involving creepy men who systemized their siring, including PBS’ gripping bio-thriller Mrs. Wilson and Fox’s discomfiting sitcom Almost Family.
Acorn’s imported British comedy The Other One, also inspired by a true story of fraudulent fatherhood and long-lost siblings, charmingly finds the middle ground between dense pathos and glib laughs. The show is a rare gem.
To be fair, a cast as magnetic as The Other One‘s would have likely won me over regardless of the intriguing conceit. Ellie White, best known to American audiences as Princess Beatrice of York on Netflix’s royal satire The Windsors, stars as Cathy Walcott, a tightly-wound 28-year-old whose world collapses when she learns her deceased dad also parented a completely separate household. To add insult to injury, posho Cathy and her imperious mom, Tess (The Thick of It‘s Rebecca Front), are shocked to find that Colin’s longtime lover and adult daughter are a pair of gaudy, chavvy eccentrics lacking the refinement of their set. To add indignity to insult, he named both daughters “Catherine Walcott” (to simplify his treachery, of course).
Most showrunners might have used this conceit to stage comical class warfare between the families, but writers Holly Walsh (Motherland, Dead Boss) and Pippa Brown (Bad Education) instead nurture a budding friendship between the half-sisters. Cathy relies on exuberant Cat (Misfits‘ breakout Lauren Socha) to help ease her neurotic dogmatism, while Cat bonds with Cathy over the loss of the beloved dad who rarely had time for his “other” daughter. Their adventures include connecting over pop music, debating where to rest Colin’s ashes and preparing for Cathy’s impending wedding to drippy, micro-cheating Marcus (Amit Shah). This blossoming kinship becomes the steady heartbeat of the 7-episode season.
The Other One, which originally aired on BBC One, works best as a blithe character study with underlying compassion. Where Cathy is a staid and dry-humored rule-follower who speaks with clipped, private school elocution, Cat is flashy and funky, her heart as open as her chatty, Midlands-accented gob. Where Cathy’s pathological passive-aggression regularly leads to self-sabotage, Cat’s candor and affectionate nature invites joy into her life (all symbolized by Cathy’s tailored blazers and Cat’s thick false eyelashes).
White and Socha are each luminous comedians in their own right, both standouts from their previous TV work, and together they share buoyant chemistry as a classic straight man/banana man duo. White excels at prim folly, Socha leans into confident crassness and both actors make excellent use of the British obscenity, “Balls!”
Cathy and Cat’s mums, however, maintain understandable distance. Siobhan Finnernan (Downton Abbey‘s formidable lady’s maid O’Brien) delights as Cat’s vaping, agoraphobic mom Marylin, a lurid 50-something eccentric who grieves over the loss of her carnal soul mate… and too often reminisces about sex with Colin in front of his dismayed daughters.
Avenue 5‘s Rebecca Front plays Colin’s embittered widow, whose denial sweeps her into epic distraction-seeking. Boiling with enmity, Tess leaps into desperate revenge hook-ups and arranging the starchy wedding Cathy wants little to do with at all. (The show’s cringiest scenes feature her failing to seduce her ride-share driver and modeling her daughter’s wedding dress.) Tess does not shine until the last two episodes, when she sheds the caricature of a scorned wife and returns to earth from the sitcom-y stratosphere.
Out of all the characters, warmhearted Marilyn oddly feels the most realistic to me, perhaps because I’ve met people exactly like her — home-bound, empathic, clinically anxious women who long for the days of their erotic peak. Finnernan exudes such down-to-earth verve and bonhomie, such slinky sexuality, you understand why a toff like Colin felt he could unleash his groovier side around her. It’s the same mechanism that draws Cathy to both women. They’re fun.
While watching, I sometimes wondered why the show automatically identifies with Cathy first and foremost. Why must we view this situation through the eyes of the upper-middle class, legally “legitimate” child while working-class Cat remains the supporting, exoticized “other” with few storylines of her own? As canny as The Other One is, and as much as I adore Socha’s performance, I can’t help but feel the writers are actually reinforcing the class distinctions between them by positioning Cathy’s as the primary psyche to unravel. Cat, and Socha, deserve more.
That being said, much of the show’s humor derives from Cathy and Tess’ stiffness. When Cat muses over skipping school back in the day, Cathy genuinely balks, “Why would you want to miss lessons?!” When Cat greets her sister for the first time, she asks her if she ever goes by Catherine. “I always thought ‘Cathy’ was a bit frumpy,” she chirps. “But it works for you!” One of my favorite episodes sees Cathy dragging her sister to the woods for a drab camping bachelorette party that also includes her garrulous Aunt Dawn (guest star Caroline Quentin, a comedic knock-out). Cathy may be privileged, but she’s also clueless.
A swot, a prat, a slut and a bitch all lost something precious to them. I like seeing them gain each other.
Cast: Ellie White, Lauren Socha, Siobhan Finneran, Rebecca Front, Amit Shah, Caroline Quentin
Written by: Holly Walsh and Pippa Brown
Premieres: Monday, August 10th (Acorn)