Ian McKellen (Gandalf in the "Hobbit and "Lord of the Rings" movies; Magneto in the "X-Men" films) and Derek Jacobi (not as well known here, but familiar from "The King’s Speech," "The Borgias," and 2012’s 12-part miniseries "Titanic: Blood and Steel") star as an older gay couple living in London, in creator / writer Gary Janetti’s "Vicious," a British situation comedy slated for a Sunday, June 29, American premiere on PBS.
The mere presence of McKellen and Jacobi -- both of them openly gay -- starring together in a Britcom about a long-time same-sex couple is enough to whet one’s curiosity and establish high expectations. (Could we, long at last, escape the gay minstrelsy of "Will & Grace," the hetero leavening of ensemble shows like "Modern Family," and the heavy-handedness of well-intentioned but overly self-conscious shows like "Normal, Ohio" and post-coming out "Ellen," and truly have a comedy to call our own?)
Factor in Iwan Rheon (who also plays sadistic creep Ramsay Snow on "Game of Thrones") as the couple’s 22-year-old upstairs neighbor -- he adopts the couple as the gay uncles he never had -- and Frances de la Tour as their always-horny-but-too-old-even-to-be-a-cougar friend Violet, and you’ve got a recipe for something suitably catty, clever, barbed, and bitchy.
The six episodes of Season One, unfortunately, don’t meet those expectations, barely rising to the level of the 1970s sitcoms from which the plots and dialogue seem to copy. Instead of watching a show about an elder gay couple whose cranky nature swaddles an underlying devotion -- which is what this show ideally would be -- we’re stuck plodding through a recycled comedy pastiche about a dysfunctional, long-married straight couple who happen to be two gay guys.
Really, that’s what Freddie (McKellen) and Stuart (Jacobi) amount to. Everything’s been imported wholesale from long-dusty shows about battling husbands and wives, and everything’s diagrammatic to the point of tedium, right down to the wacky sidekicks: Young Ash (Theon), the strapping but rather dim young neighbor, seems to have nothing better to do than come knocking at the door of Freddie (McKellen) and Stuart (Jacobi) at all hours. (They always welcome him with predatory relish.)
If Ash, despite his various girlfriends, has no life apart from these two quarrelsome codgers (and why does a straight 22-year-old guy bring his girl troubles to his seventyish gay neighbors anyway?), neither does Violet (de la Tour), whose ravenous sexual appetite lands her in hot water with dubious lovers. (Nothing slows her down, so rampant are her hormones even at this late date: If given a chance, she’d devour the much younger Ash whole.)
As for our pair-bonded central characters, Freddie is a bit player whose acting career has never ramped up above fourth gear; even now, he’s lucky to get two seconds on an episode of "Downton Abbey." Stuart has spent the last half-century as a house husband. (Gender roles, anyone?) You almost expect Freddie to channel "All in the Family"’s Archie Bunker and call Stuart a "dingbat," except that Stuart, channeling Alice from "The Honeymooners," is ever-ready with a jibe that’s as deep and devastating as whatever slur Freddie flings at him.
The sense of formula persists right to the story beats, which are nothing if not metronomic. Every episode starts with Stuart on the phone with his clueless mother (the poor dear, who must be in her 90s, is still waiting for sonny boy to meet the right girl -- despite Stuart having shared a flat with Freddie for 48 years). Cue Freddie, who dodders out of bed and downstairs immediately after, for a cup of tea and the first scolding, scalding insults of a new day. Now Ash raps at the door ("Hey! Is this a bad time?"), or Violet phones, or they both end up sipping tea with our cantankerous couple. Meantime, Balthazar -- Freddie and Stuart’s superannuated dog, barely alive and glimpsed only as a bump underneath swaddling in a dog basket --is on constant standby as the object of grotesque one-liners, a counterpoint and underscore for the age- and appearance-related swipes Freddie and Stuart constantly take at one another. It’s as though the idea was to take a straight comedy with gay appeal, like "The Golden Girls," and go straight to the big ol’ homo heart of the matter. As a result, the show has sparked some controversy for the "cliches" it trades in. But that wouldn’t matter, if "Vicious" were inspired, or clever, or even funny.
Yes, we get the show’s central core of humor, which proceeds from a stereotypically gay fear of getting older. ("Can I pass for fifty?" Freddie wonders in one episode, smoothing out his jowl. Stuart responds, "I’m not sure you could pass for living.") The upside of age, such as depth of character, life experience, wisdom? Don’t look for any of it here. That, too, is a reliable comedy trope: The fumbling of the eternally juvenile. But taking a classic trope and working it up into something new is a fundamentally different business from warming it over with borrowed (and pretty shallow) gay sensibilities.
What’s really creaky, however, are the conventions the show collapses into when it lacks the convictions of its dyspeptic tenor. When push comes to shove -- Freddie finds himself in a crisis of confidence, or a shocked outsider takes the couple to task -- a unified front promptly materializes, and sometimes there’s even a kiss or a hug. (Awww!) These transitions happen on a ha’penny, and with such little meaningful effect that it’s hard to believe in either the love or the hate that these characters -- who could, if properly written, be complex and convincing -- purportedly have for one another.
"Vicious" is the right title for this show, at least superficially; but crusty as it might be on top (and, to be fair, there are some truly funny zingers to be had here, albeit with broken-clock regularity), underneath this show remains the same bland hokum that’s been routinely served up by television to heterosexual viewers over the last, oh, forty-eight years or so.
"Vicious" premieres at 10:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 29, on PBS.