Before Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie” made headlines by daring to pair seventysomething leads in a sitcom, there was “Last Tango in Halifax,” and for that matter, “Vicious,” both PBS series starring the indefatigable Derek Jacobi. “Last Tango” returns for its third season, having drifted somewhat from the spark that initially made the show so bracing, becoming a more conventional family soap, albeit still with wonderful moments. Still pleasant enough, one can feel series creator Sally Wainwright laboring a bit, having brought her adorable leads together, as she conjures excuses to drive wedges between them.
Just as a refresher, Alan (Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid) were sweet on each other as teenagers, only to be separated for 60 years. Both widowed, they were reunited in the first season, with their unlikely romance having a ripple effect on everyone around them, including their grown daughters.
Season three begins with Celia’s progeny, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), about to marry her girlfriend (Nina Sosanya), with whom she’s having a baby. “They’re getting married. The lesbians,” Celia sniffs, before she insists how broad-minded she is — her more conservative political views chafing against Alan’s much more liberal outlook, one of the impediments that’s already been thrown at the older couple.
Still, the real mini-crisis this season comes from the distant past, with Alan discovering, as he so quaintly puts it, a “skeleton in the cupboard” — one that shakes up their dynamic enough to again threaten all that newfound happiness and harmony.
Admittedly, having experienced enough success, especially in the U.K., to justify second and third installments, “Last Tango” — and Wainwright — couldn’t just have the pair sit around watching TV together, although seeing Jacobi’s character regale his wife with a very old joke in the opening episode is, frankly, as much fun as anything that follows. The main problem is that the story has to create conflict without going so far as to unwind the romance that initially made the show so irresistible.
As a consequence, much of the drama comes from the supporting players, and Celia’s disapproving posture toward her daughter feels too much like territory that’s been previously covered. More fertile material comes from Alan’s daughter Gillian (Nicola Walker), who is still trying to get her life together, but keeps making bad choices.
The mere fact that PBS has the latitude to feature a program built around senior citizens in this demo-obsessed day and age still feels like a big bear hug of public television’s mandate to serve underrepresented demographics — almost literally from the cradle, with its preschool programming, to the grave. By that measure, “Last Tango in Halifax” remains thoroughly watchable and generally enjoyable, but having made it halfway through season three, one suspects there aren’t many more spins around the dance floor left.