No matter how Brexit ends up shaking out, TV critics can only pray that it has no impact on Great Britain’s key natural creative resource: six-episode melancholic comedies from star-writers, who, despite relative inexperience as creators, have immediate proficiency with complicated tone and take full advantage of the remarkable domestic talent pool.
Whatever unavoidable sadness one might feel at losing Catastrophe after four seasons and Fleabag after two seasons can be slightly allayed by knowing that the pipeline remains open for shows that scratch a comparable itch, all seemingly lined up and ready to debut, starting Wednesday with Hulu’s This Way Up, a Channel 4 acquisition.
This Way Up was created by Aisling Bea, whose myriad acting credits include Hard Sun, a drama that I promise premiered last year and is available on Hulu. Bea plays Aine, who begins the series being released from some sort of facility. The cause of her stay seems officially to have been a nervous breakdown, but based on sister Shona’s (Sharon Horgan) level of concern, it was something more involved than that.
Four months later, Aine’s life is back to something resembling normal. She’s teaching English, using Keeping Up With the Kardashians as a key text, to a class of eager immigrants. She’s also taken up a freelance gig working for generally stern (or possibly shellshocked) Richard (Tobias Menzies), who has only just discovered that he has a French son (Dorian Grover’s Etienne), whose English is spotty at best. Since her program told her to avoid intimacy for a year, Aine is spending a lot of time with Shona and her boyfriend Vish (Aasif Mandvi), as Shona is pouring her energy into a new project supporting women in finance with the alluring Charlotte (Indira Varma).
That’s about all there is to This Way Up, which I don’t mean as an insult. It’s a very low-incident series. There’s some workplace comedy with Aine’s class, there’s an open question as to whether we’re supposed to see Richard and Aine as a potential couple, we’re definitely supposed to worry about the romantic threat posed by Aine’s ex Freddie (Chris Geere) and I guess we’re supposed to be curious about what’s holding back Shona’s commitment to Vish. More than anything, we’re supposed to watch Aine with some trepidation, figuring out which of her “up” moments have manic shadings and what actually happened to her (or what she did) that led to her breakdown, but this isn’t a Fleabag situation where there’s a big mystery or surprise we’re supposed to be unraveling.
The backdrop of Aine’s class lets This Way Up comment a little on the status of immigrants in post-Brexit England, underlined by Aine and Shona’s own Irishness and the way Vish and Charlotte handle or avoid their otherness. It’s not a relentless subtext and it’s rolled into the handling of Aine’s emotional problems without driving the narrative. It’s all just people trying to fit in and be or seem to be happy no matter how hard that is.
Episodic plots don’t get much bigger than a day trip to the countryside or a low-urgency trip to the emergency room, so the show really is at its best when it’s focused on the interactions and relationships between the characters. That means that the first couple episodes stumble around a little introducing us to people and then the second half of the season is really locked in. Since episodes aren’t more than 23 minutes apiece and they’ll be presented as a Hulu binge, that’s no impediment at all. Directed by Alex Winckler, episodes move fast, regardless of whether you care appreciably about what’s happening.
It’s enough to just like Aine and to worry about her predicament, which comes easily with Bea’s affectionate and eager-to-please performance. I don’t remember the last time I saw a character in a comedy this clearly defined as being not funny in such a realistic way. That’s not “not funny” as in “serious.” Aine desperately wants to be funny, because she knows that getting people to laugh at or with her will make them think she’s OK, and it just happens that her punchlines fall frequently and conspicuously flat. But she keeps trying, which should generate empathy from all but the most effortlessly hilarious of viewers.
It sells Aine’s potential relationship with Richard, because he’s too stern and wooden to even get her jokes, but her effort makes him try and there’s some spark in that. I’ve never cared for Menzies when he’s cast as being handsome and therefore, by inference, dashing. I think he’s great, however, when he’s cast as being fundamentally sour despite his handsomeness. Through the first season, I don’t think This Way Up has gotten around to explaining or justifying Richard’s personality, nor does it need to. He’s just uncomfortable, but he’s willing to try to find things funny when he’s around Aine, even if he doesn’t.
Aine’s comic misfiring — not an anxious or borderline offensive thing like with a Michael Scott/David Brent type — also sells Aine’s relationship with Shona, because together they’re funny, often in that easily identifiable way in which siblings can amuse and be amusing together, even if they perplex everybody around them. This is a less lacerating character for Horgan, executive producing as well, than the parts she tends to write for herself or others and her protectiveness for her sister makes her instantly likable, if flawed in less immediately visible ways. Sorcha Cusack makes a fine one-episode guest appearance as their Irish TV personality mother, a woman who presumably played no small role in shaping and warping her daughters’ sensibilities.
The Aine-Shona relationship so dominates the series that it’s hard for a lot of the supporting characters not to feel thin. Mandvi’s Vish is nice and occasionally droll, but never really all that funny. Geere’s Freddie is a slightly amusing cad, though fans of You’re the Worst will find him fairly wasted. As much as I love how compact these six-episode British seasons can be, it’d be hard to dispute that a 10- or 13-episode season might have given more development room for Aine’s students — Pik Sen Lim and Todor Jordanov get a laugh or two — or her roommates or co-workers. The pieces are here for This Way Up to expand its ensemble and its emotional palette in a second season.
And if This Way Up doesn’t quite fill that Fleabag/Catastrophe-shaped hole in your heart, maybe Showtime’s Back to Life, premiering in October, will do the job. Shows like these are apparently a renewal resource across the pond.
Cast: Aisling Bea, Sharon Horgan, Aasif Mandvi, Indira Varma, Dorian Grover, Tobias Menzies
Creator: Aisling Bea
Premieres: Wednesday (Hulu)