In the UK: Mondays, 10pm, BBC2
There's a fine British (mostly English) tradition of the 'vicar sitcom'. Whether it was The Vicar of Dibley or All Gas and Gaiters, for years TV has been giving us vaguely amusing, genteel comedy set in the countryside, monasteries, et al where nothing too much like the real world can encroach.
Now we have Rev on BBC2, in which Tom Hollander plays a vicar who leaves his comfortable Suffolk parish for one in Shoreditch, with all the inner city problems that might bring. While it's not laugh-a-minute and it's still not exactly the most 'street' of shows, it's at least somewhere in the right vicinity of both.
Sitcom about a vicar running a modern inner-city church, with a reluctant wife and a depleted, motley congregation.
Is it any good?
I'd actually say yes to this one. Although it's very similar to shows like Outnumbered where most of the comedy comes from the ineffectual nature of the main character(s), Rev manages to tread the fine line between making the characters real and being too (ho ho) reverential very well.
In this first episode, Rev Adam Smallbone (Hollander) has to cope with two challenges: finding the money to repair a broken stained glass window; and having to survive an onslaught of parents joining his congregation so he'll recommend their kids to the good CofE school his headmistress friend runs. The two come together with Smallbone having to decide whether to compromise his ethics by delaying one parishioner's wedding and making a bad recommendation to his friend so that the local MP will give him the money to fix the window.
All this is actually quite well handled, with Smallbone trying to do the honourable, Christian thing while almost everyone around him is cleverer, far more manipulative and far more amoral than he is – a direct inversion of the somewhat "Christianity-free" Vicar of Dibley where the vicar was one of the least Christian and most manipulative of all the characters.
Having such a close-to-the-knuckle plot is interesting as well. While Vicar of Dibley and their ilk were content to present their leads with relatively uncontroversial challenges, Rev gives us a situation that is pretty real and probably one a sizable number of the viewers would recognise, if only because they've started going to a church to get their kids into the good church school. Prodding your own audience's hypocrisy? That's got to be a little brave at least.
The characters are variable. Hollander is as good as always as Smallbone, managing to give us a slightly innocent, well-motivated character but one who gets hangovers, smokes and is prepared to swear at people (once he's taken his dog collar off). Olivia Coleman is equally good, but at the moment, has little to do as Smallbone's solicitor wife beyond be supportive but tetchy. The members of the congregation don't have much to them beyond being "the mental one", "the ethnic one", "the zealous one" and so on, but largely they come across as exaggerations of real people and real situations, rather than characters completely at variance with reality (cf The Vicar of Dibley).
I'm not sure about the iPhone-wielding Archdaecon who comes a little too close to unchristian behaviour and attitudes to be really believable. Smallbone is just a tad less willing to invoke Jesus and God to justify his decisions than you'd think of a vicar, too. And for all its attempts to be street, the situation's still a little cosy and middle class.
Nevertheless, with its hand-held camera work, real-world setting, strong cast and decent scripting, this is one of the best sitcoms to have come from BBC2 for a long time. It's not quite up there with Father Ted and clearly it needs time to develop, but this was a pretty decent first stab. We'll be watching next week.
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