Vicious (originally titled Vicious Old Queens) is a new sitcom on ITV, centred around an old gay couple who have been together for almost 50 years. The show focuses on the interactions between them and their friends, and their new neighbour Ash, a young man who rents the flat above them*.
At first glance, it's a very different thing to my usual reviews, as it's not a speculative show. However, it has a crossover of actors between speculative things. Freddy is played by Ian McKellen (Magneto, Gandalf) and Stuart by Derek Jacobi (Professor Yana in Doctor Who). Some of the jokes are aimed at the genre crowd. Add in the representation themes (not just on-screen, as McKellen and Jacobi are both gay), and I was interested to see where it went.
This review covers the first three episodes and some thoughts on the general series themes. I watched episode two first, went back to watch one, and then watched three (just to be confusing). The series has three more episodes to go and a Christmas special (I likely won't review those, as this is more of an early review so people can see if it's something that might interest them).
The first episode mainly serves to introduce the characters. Freddy and Stuart find out an old friend has died, and decide to have a little gathering at their flat after the funeral. Ash (Iwan Rheon) visits to see the vacant flat, but gets the wrong door and rings the bell of Freddie and Stuart's flat instead.
When the gathering happens, also attending are Violet (Frances de la Tour), absent-minded Penelope (Marcia Warren) and grumpy Mason (Phillip Voss).
I likely appreciated this episode more as I'd seen the second, because it wasn't as quotable. It also had a rape joke, which really wasn't funny. But there were some moments in the rest, such as Freddie and Stuart's reaction when Ash opens their curtains (this is me - I never open my curtains). And cutting the sandwiches up very small (this is a very British thing at parties, though on a more serious note, also hints at money not being too plentiful for the couple).
The strength of this episode is in its potential. The parts are all well cast. It also wins on the basic setup. Apart from the running joke of Stuart not having told his mother, everyone knows about their relationship. It's refreshing to have a story about gay characters that isn't focused on coming out. And due to the not-so-subtle attempts to find out Ash's sexuality, Ash ends up coming out as straight, which is a fun reversal.
But it didn't hit that potential. One of things that makes it harder to laugh is Freddie repeatedly pushes too far in the bickering and upsets Stuart (though Stuart also snipes back, he's generally a little milder and less egotistical than Freddie). If this had been a later episode, where the viewer knew how their relationship went, it'd come across differently. I viewed it differently having seen episode two first. But here, without that context, it created an uncertainty about whether there's a genuine problem in the relationship, and it's hard to laugh at that.
Freddie's acting career wasn't much of a career, but he did play a villain in an episode of Doctor Who and he's been invited to a Doctor Who fan event. As the event approaches, Stuart is spending increasing amounts of time out of the flat and Freddie worries he's having an affair.
Meanwhile, Ash wants to get back together with his ex-girlfriend, and comes to Freddie and Stuart for advice. Violet also has a few suggestions.
The plot is one that's very guessable, as it's the old nutshell of assuming absence is an affair, when something else is going on. However, this series isn't really about plot, but character interaction, and this episode got that part down. The layers of Freddie and Stuart's interactions are much clearer here. The way they show caring about each other may be a little different, but it's there.
After this episode, I'm in love with Penelope. Her delivery of the lines where she's trying to prove she does know Stuart's name, by constantly using it, is classic. In general, the actors seem more comfortable with their roles.
While Freddie is preparing for an audition, Ash visits to ask for career advice. Freddie suggests he try acting, and should help him prepare.
When Ash gets a part at his first audition, Freddie's confidence is ruined, and he starts being nice to people. Stuart can't take it anymore, so comes up with a plan to get Freddie's confidence back.
This is generally a quieter episode, as Freddie spends a fair bit of it feeling sad, but I found it a nice change of pace. The acting humour reminded me of my amateur dramatics days**. I've met the person who tried to make being Cook Staff Number Four the most important part in the whole script. Freddie's reaction to Ash's success was spot on (success is fine... as long as you're not more successful than him).
Stuart and Violet also have some scenes, where the chemistry between them as long term (probably) best friends really comes across.
Style of Comedy
Vicious is an old-fashioned sitcom, with limited sets (it's mostly in Stuart and Freddie's flat) and snarky one-liners. It has a laughter track (which is my least favourite thing about it) but I'd learnt to ignore it by the third episode.
I can't really say how funny or unfunny it is, as I rarely laugh out loud at sitcoms. I suppose because I'm expecting the jokes. But I was looking forward to the third episode, so it did succeed in that.
One of the inevitable discussions is how the gay characters are portrayed and whether that's a good or bad thing. The main criticism here tends to be that they're rather camp. It's true they are, but the problem with campiness isn't the campiness, as some gay men are camp. It's that it's usually a trait for gay men who are there to be accessories, rather than characters in their own right. It's often used as a lazy shorthand for gayness, as though there's no other way to be gay.
In most cases, a camp gay man will be the gay best friend. He will be there to help the straight main character. He'll drop everything for that main character, because his life revolves around serving them. If the gay friend is in a relationship, it will be there to inspire the main character.
Alternatively, the camp gay man is there to appear as a minor comedy character.
None of that is true in Vicious. It's about Eddie and Stuart, with the straight characters being there to help tell Eddie and Stuart's story. People may come for advice or see the couple's relationship as an inspiration, but that's not why Eddie and Stuart exist in the story. Nor is campiness a shortcut for gayness, as it's evident they're gay in other ways (like living together and having direct discussions about being gay, whether other people are gay, etc.)
It's also notable that these are older men, who lived through the time when gay relationships were illegal, when code words were needed to talk about it, and when being camp was something used as a weapon and an identity in a hostile climate.
The style of the show won't appeal to everyone, but I don't think its existence is a bad thing.
Stereotype reversals and gender fluidity come up repeatedly in this. From the start, there's Ash cast in a role that would usually go to a young woman, of the pretty young thing people are ogling. Yet he reacts as a young man might - uncomfortable and unsure how to handle it, because this isn't something that usually happens to men.
Ash is also the one with romantic dreams of finding true love. Compared to Violet, who is clearly less interested in the love part.
At one point Freddie uses the term "shop girl" to refer to a man, which gets a laugh from the studio audience, because that's not how it goes. People will argue that fireman and paper boy mean everyone really, not just men. But the same logic doesn't apply to house wife and shop girl. They might say anyone can be a bitch, slut or whore, but in reality, it's rare for people to use them as insults towards a man (or if they do, to add the extra of manwhore and manslut, as though it's a different thing when it's a man).
This is a mixed bag for me, because I do appreciate that it hits people as unexpected, which may make them laugh and to think about why it's unexpected at the same time. It makes people notice the things they otherwise don't notice because they're so common, by switching the targets***.
But I also have an instinctively bad reaction to those insults, even if used in contexts where they're not being aimed at women. I cringe at Ash's discomfort, at the same time as being aware that if he were a woman, it'd be taken as normal treatment and some viewers wouldn't notice. His facial expressions of horror and discomfort would be seen as over-reacting if he was a she.
So the jokes in this category are sometimes things that need to be said, but it doesn't stop them having an uncomfortable layer to them.
Comedies are one of the hardest things to recommend to other people, as there's a wide range in what people find funny, and how funny they need to find them to want to watch. So I'm not going to say if anyone should or shouldn't watch it, but I hope there's enough information in my review to give a fair idea of whether it might appeal.
* ITV's press pack says "their lives now consist of reading books, walking their dog and bickering." The dog is an almost dead dog they wake up sporadically to see he isn't dead. He's played by a pile of blankets rather than an actual dog, because he doesn't move. Walking their dog? Who wrote this?
** I was also reminded of Tumblr, where creative aspects of scripts are often put down to the actor adding something in and it being kept, rather than being in the script. These things happen, but not as often as Tumblr posts claim. The part where Freddie is talking about dropping a potato not being in the script, but them keeping it in, reminded me of that so much. This needs to be a Tumblr meme.
*** This is a similar philosophy to gender-switching superhero characters or cover models, to highlight that the way women are dressed and posed is not equivalent to the men.