The stench of daytime talkshows from the likes of Jerry Springer and Maury Povich infects BBC America’s “The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle,” which begins a six-episode U.S. run on Sundance Channel. Imported skein proves that what goes on behind the scenes is often just as bizarre as those social misfits who take the stage, but that insight is barely enough reason to tune in, as the grumpy, narcissistic and unappealing lead character played by Jennifer Saunders barely has a kind word for anyone in her inner circle, much less those she hardly knows.
Half-hour “Vivienne Vyle” is a linchpin of Sundance’s newly launched Sunday-night comedy block, yet the humor here is so pitch-black dark that the series would work better as a drama. Saunders, recognizable to many for her work in Brit hit “Absolutely Fabulous,” co-writes with Tanya Byron and has made Vivienne multidimensional. It’s just that through the first two episodes, few of these dimensions invoke warmth.
She’s either yelling at her producer, Helena — an often difficult to understand Miranda Richardson — or sneering at her effeminate husband (Conleth Hill), who’s constantly trying to stroke her ego, to no avail.
Richardson plays Helena as a hippie who doesn’t have much say in the day-to-day operations of the show, spending more of her time trying to launch Vivienne from U.K. sensation to a celebrity on American shores. She gets her wish in the first episode when an irate guest assaults Vivienne, a security guard accidentally falls on top of her and all the commotion ends up being a publicity coup.
While recuperating in the hospital, Vivienne meets a psychotherapist (Jason Watkins) who eventually gets hired on the show and is appalled at the vetting process — or, more accurately, the absence of one — for guests. Watkins is a pleasant surprise, not falling under Vivienne’s self-absorbed spell and adding a nice touch of bewilderment to the showbiz chaos around him.
There’s some attempted cubicle humor that tries to capture the tone of another BBC hit, “The Office,” but the intentionally awkward moments are just that, failing to generate any appreciable laughs.
To her credit, Saunders is compelling — nearly as good as she was in “Ab Fab” — but even a fine performance isn’t enough reason to tune in when she’s playing a woman nobody would want to spend time with.