Vicious: Sundays at 10:30 Eastern on PBS (Check your local listings)
No need for a double take, I am actually reviewing a new PBS show. While typically PBS skews a little more highbrow or educational than what most of my readers typically want to see, when I found out about Vicious I knew I had to make an exception to the rule because anything starring Ian McKellen will trump pretty much anything else, including an HBO series premiere happening concurrently (if I have time this week, I will try to pick up The Leftovers during the week). British comedies have traditionally had a strong cult track record in the US (PBS in particular being a key importer of the subgenre) so it should be interesting to see how Vicious translates as it moves across the pond.
Vicious is a multi-cam comedy about two longtime romantic partners Freddie Thornhill (Ian McKellen) and Stuart Bixbi (Derek Jacobi) trying to age gracefully while sharing the same London flat for a half century. With both men well beyond retirement age, their free time is mostly spent entertaining guests and slinging the most caustic invective possible at each other. The two are surrounded by a small clique of other elderly friends, and Ash, their considerably younger twenty-something neighbor.
So how is Vicious? Well starting with the obvious, it’s an incredibly snarky show, and it’s the sort of show that truly succeeds at it’s barbs. In a TV environment where barb-loaded multi-camera shows often swing and miss (Whitney and Friends with Better Lives both come to mind) for it’s barbs to feel not only funny but also unforced is a refreshing change. It often does that by layering the causticness on top of the delusions of much of the friend circle, whose swollen egos make for a sufficiently juicy target for the sniping that comes later.
None of this however, succeeds without McKellen and Jacobi, who completely succeed at being an old, married couple. The two are often at each others throats, but it becomes clear in the end that while a half-century of familiarity brought a ton of contempt, one doesn’t just stay with someone for that long without actually caring about the other person in the relationship. Furthermore, both actors’ theater background is put to good use as Vicious gives them room to truly ham up and vamp a little bit, which only helps to embellish the slams that are central to the show. It is in radiating out from McKellen and Jacobi that Vicious finds it’s groove and clearly the best angle for a show that doesn’t really do B-plots.
There are some very important structural issues that hold Vicious back though. This is particularly notable whenever the full cast happens to occupy a scene such as tonight’s wake: everyone (Ash excluded) seems to operate as the same exact level of acidity, leading to instances where everyone aside from the central pairing gets drowned out. The plotting also seems fairly threadbare at points, with the show often meandering or circling on it’s punchline-laden asides just a tad too much.
The Final Verdict: Vicious is an exemplary execution of the multi-camera sitcom. It doesn’t necessarily add anything new or revolutionary to the format, but instead simply works because it’s central pairing is better than pretty much any central pairing on this side of the pond. I’d recommend checking it out, with it easily entering must watch territory if you’re into McKellen or very biting comedies like Veep.