Series Saturday is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.
Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead (Yes, for a sitcom.)
Vicious didn’t last long, but I think it’s possibly in my Top 5 favorite sit-coms. Had it had more episodes per season or lasted longer, my opinion might have changed. But the short, sweet run it had (14 episodes over a three-year span, including the extra-long Finale) was I think just enough to fall in love with these bitter, snarking characters and not grow tired of them.
Created by Gary Janetti and Mark Ravenhill, Vicious originally aired in the UK before making its way to the United States on PBS, which is where I saw the first season and bits of the second. I bought the DVDs to watch the episodes my DVR had somehow failed to record (including the Finale). Because of course I did. The series focuses on Freddie (Sir Ian McKellan) and Stuart (Sir Derek Jacobi), a couple who have been together for forty-eight years at the start of the first season. In short order, they (and we) meet their new, cute-as-a-button, young upstairs neighbor Ash (Iwan Rheon) and the speculation starts as to whether the young man is “family” or not (Spoiler: he’s not.). Freddie and Stuart’s lifelong friend Violet (Frances de la Tour) also takes a shine to Ash, although the couple’s other close friends, absent-minded Penelope (Marcia Warren) and acerbic Mason (Philip Voss) don’t seem quite so enamored of Ash at first.
The first season feels the freshest and most tightly written, perhaps because the writers are so invested in getting us to understand the characters and their relationships that they wrote seven mostly stand-alone episodes. Other than Ash being drawn more completely into the older characters’ circle, there’s no real “season arc” to speak of. Each episode sets up a situation, hits certain expected moments, and resolves by episode’s end. The running joke of Stuart constantly reintroducing Ash to Violet (“You remember our friend Violet,” often delivered as though the two have never met before) is the closest the writers come to a situation that lasts several episodes and then is resolved in the season finale. Season Two’s more structured lead-up to Freddie and Stuart’s wedding after fifty years together, coupled with a change in episode structure (every episode of season one started with Stuart on the phone with his mother and some Freddie-Stuart ribbing; season two’s episodes start with the two conversing as they walk down the street and something about the on-location filming feels out of place to me) makes the season feel less improvised and thus less fresh. There are still wonderful moments of comedy and character development, but there’s a lot of run-of-the-mill dialogue and situational slapstick as well (I’m looking at you, Mason, Penelope and the wedding cake!).
Both leads deliver their quips with just enough of a wink that the viewers understand these are two men who have developed a verbal shorthand where almost everything they say means “I love you and I wouldn’t change you for the world.” Relationship-wise, it’s clear that Freddie is a bit more dominant, Stuart a bit more submissive – and when the writers reverse the relationship (for instance, in the season two opener, when Freddie has to play subservient butler to a “straight, macho” Stuart to help Violet during a visit from her condescending sister), the writing is at its best. It helps that Sir Ian and Sir Derek obviously enjoy feeding off of each other’s energy, and one has to wonder how much of their banter was ad-libbed. (I also think it’s interesting that Sir Ian says they each had crushes on the other during early acting school days, but neither ever confessed to the other. I wonder what having them as the First Gay Couple of British Theater in real life would have been like.)
The characters’ styles are very different as well. In both dress and personality, Freddie is a bit haughty, Stuart more demure. Stuart wants to be liked/loved, while Freddie just assumes he is. They are both capable of delivering a cutting bon-mot towards their friends, however, and sometimes seem gleeful in inflicting pain. I do wish we’d seen more of what brought these five people together and just a hint more of the love they feel for each other; it’s the one true negative about the lead characters. Sure, in the season two wedding episode, they show some affection – but there’s a lot of dismissiveness and derision before that point. One starts to wonder why Violet, Penelope and Mason have hung around for so long. (Frances de la Tour has a great moment of honesty with Ash in the Finale on this very topic, but it reads as a bit too little too late despite how very good she is in the scene.) Every so often, one of the three scores some equally cutting points on the two leads (Penelope in particular).
And while Violet is pretty well developed over the course the two seasons (de la Tour’s boozier and more lascivious line reads and sub-plots made me wish this show had done a crossover with Absolutely Fabulous), Penelope and Mason fare less well. In the second season we get a bit more of a sense of Penelope’s life and the brave face she’s putting on (Marcia Warren is brilliant in those scenes, most particularly in the ballroom dancing episode and the Finale), but the reveal that Mason is actually Freddie’s younger brother is the definition of a throw-away line for shock’s sake, as is the line about Mason also being gay. Philip Voss does the best with what he’s given, but he’s given the least of the series regulars to work with until the Finale when he has a poignant exchange with Penelope about being there for her to the end, and an almost-poignant moment with Freddie over a good memory from their apparently otherwise horrific childhood.
Then there’s Ash, the young innocent thrust into this biting, sarcastic, awkward family unit. I think it’s a credit to Iwan Rheon and the writers that the character never loses than innocence, never really takes on Freddie and Stuart’s way of interacting with others (except in one episode, with disastrous results). Even though Ash is straight, this consistency in his character points up a generational difference: the biting humor of the old queens doesn’t quite work in younger relationships. Unfortunately, there are a few episodes where the writers decide that innocent = goofy/stupid, especially in season two and the early parts of the Finale. It’s a tendency lots of sitcoms fall into, making the innocence or good-nature of a character too broad. In another example the show subverting expected tropes, it’s not the old gay men who slobber over Ash (or, more common, old straight men making lewd suggestive comments to a beautiful young woman), but their friend Violet. The Violet-Ash dynamic is the second most interesting relationship in the show, but the writers show a remarkable restraint in just how far they let it go before resolving the tension.
In the end, for me it really comes down to my enjoyment of watching three great older actors (McKellan, Jacobi, and de la Tour) work their craft, and watch an at the time relative newcomer hold his own with them.
Check out Vicious on DVD or streaming if you like: sitcoms that center gay characters; snarky humor with an undercurrent of love; watching a group of old professionals knock it out of the park; Iwan Rheon not playing a Bastard (yes, that’s a Game of Thrones reference).