TV Review: ‘Vicious’

Vicious PBS review

Two things become immediately clear watching PBS’ Brit-com import “Vicious”: One, the major networks wouldn’t touch it. And two, it’s too bad the show isn’t sharp enough to make them regret that bias. The taboo here isn’t that the main characters played by Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi are gay, it’s that they fall far outside the 18-49 demo. While the material is about as classy as an average Chuck Lorre show, the name and very game cast — especially McKellen — should be a potent draw for PBS’ dedicated Anglophile aud.

Co-created by American TV vet Gary Janetti (“Family Guy,” “Will & Grace”) and British playwright Mark Ravenhill, the shamelessly broad comedy centers around the busy living room of egomaniacal small-time actor Freddie (McKellen) and his partner of nearly 50 years, Stuart (Jacobi, also featured in PBS’ “Last Tango in Halifax”).

They’re frequently visited by randy best pal Violet (Frances de la Tour) and the happy-go-lucky young hunk from upstairs, Ash (Iwan Rheon, 180 degrees from playing vile villain Ramsay Snow on “Game of Thrones”), the perpetual target of misguided flirting from Freddie and Violet alike.

While the quality of the cast may inspire hopes of a sophisticated laffer, “Vicious” is a pointed throwback to ’70s era schtick with decidedly un-P.C. humor and farcical plotlines that wouldn’t feel out of place in a “Three’s Company” rerun. The bulk of the first episode involves determining whether Ash is straight or gay, and later installments include Freddie’s concern Stuart might be unfaithful and Ash landing a gig as a club promoter, inviting his senior friends out for the night (he’s “paid by the head,” though Freddie hears that differently).

It’s all filmed in front of a live audience, on a noticeably theatrical stage complete with a grand staircase for McKellen and Jacobi to alternate dramatic entrances and exits as needed.

McKellen turns out to be the show’s not-so-secret weapon. A great actor playing a mediocre one, he’s somehow entirely convincing in the part (the thrill Freddie feels over an audition to play “Cook Staff #4” on “Downton Abbey” is palpable) and particularly adept at delivering Janetti’s acid-tongued putdowns and sarcastic asides.

That’s where the “Vicious” title comes from. Freddie and Stuart prove unrelenting in their bitchy barbs about age, appearance, intellect and background, directed both at each other and their friends. The mean-spirited (if ultimately loving) nature of the series could easily be a turn-off for some. Others will simply wish the writing was as consistently clever as McKellen’s line readings.

Still, “Vicious” doesn’t need to be perfect to score. With U.S. networks stubbornly uninterested in exploring the lives of people over 60, PBS could find an untapped audience for the six-episode first season. And cancellation won’t be a concern: the show was successful enough on ITV in the U.K. to merit a second season, expected to premiere across the pond later this year.

TV Review: 'Vicious'

(Series; PBS, Sun. June 29, 10:30 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in London by Brown Eyed Boy in association with Kudos and Nickelby Inc.

Crew

Executive producer, Gary Janetti; consulting producers, Mark Ravenhill, Jemma Rodgers; producer, Gary Reich; director, Ed Bye; writer, Janetti; camera, Tony Keene; production designer, Harry Banks; editor, Chris Wadsworth; casting, Toby Whale, Marilyn Johnson. 30 MIN.

Cast

Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Frances de la Tour, Iwan Rheon, Marcia Warren, Philip Voss.

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  1. kat0711 says:

    Having just binged the entire series in the last two days, I am devastated to find out that it’s cancelled. I’ve never laughed so hard so often in my entire life. I’m very upset about this.

  2. Mike says:

    Vicious is awful television. PBS should be embarrassed.

  3. ACE says:

    As a gay , British male, living in the US and somewhat younger than the two leads, I have to say that the show did offend me. I think if the two leads were not 2 of the most well known senior Gay British actors there would be enormous outcry. As it is it just offends because it is a series of gay put downs that are basically one liners, there is little in the way of plot. If played by straight men, it would seem offensive and homophobic, because the leads are “Out” gays it does not make it any the less offensive. It could have been much more, instead it’s just depressing.

    • b. Mclane says:

      This show is not about you. You can’t compare a show to how you want aging gay men to be perceived. There is no room for PC nonsense in comedy. I lost so many friends to Aids and as younger men they acted just like Stuart and Freddie. Heaven knows how outrageous they’d be today. Often, I think how cheated I am by not getting to grow old along with my friends who only would have gotten more funny and fun to be with. To me these well seasoned actors don’t play their characters in one tone. Freddie and Stuart are vividly displayed in rainbow colored hues. ( get it? Rainbow colors). Complaining about health one minute and googling over pretty boys the next. I love this show. It gives me a taste of what has been lost.

      • John Calvin says:

        I, too, agree with your comment. Reading it reminded me of what we have lost and was a poignant reminder of what might have been. Brings tears to my eyes.

        That being said, criticizing this show is like criticizing and bemoaning every big gay campy drag show ever performed. If we are going to be blessed enough to have Knights Of The Realm standing up for our community then I say bully for them for throwing the occasional camp!

        (PS I own season one and and of bated breath for season two)

  4. brewster says:

    LOVED this show. The lines are wonderful. So many mainstream TV series run by the major networks are just plain boring. The writing of the lines for Freddie and Stewart are excellent, it may be a bit stereotyping but it’s still very funny.
    Reminds me a lot of the very popular 90’s show The Golden Girls.

  5. Jordy says:

    How did two extraordinary actors get talked into this travesty of stereotypes? My partner and I have been together for 56 years, we wear no dressing gowns, we never bitch at each other.
    Perhaps if the language were Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde it might be acceptable…..but it just stinks.

  6. M+B says:

    LOVED Vicious! What fun! Will keep watching! Hope they run for many more seasons!

  7. We Yanks will finally get to see this on Sunday. Love Ian and Derek!

  8. Maddy says:

    I loved this series. Some genuine laugh out loud moments – particularly in the Christmas episode where a female friend asks if she is invited to a party and McKellan ebulliently responds “of course, even though you’re a huge slag.” Looking forward to the second.

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