“This Way Up” – Do Not Drop [TELEVISION REVIEW]

Aisling Bea) as Aine in "This Way Up." Photo courtesy of Channel 4.

Aisling Bea) as Aine in “This Way Up.” Photo courtesy of Channel 4.

John Landgraf, then head of cable channel FX, was reviled in 2015 for stating, “I long ago lost the ability to keep track of every scripted TV series.” He was right. However, he continued with, “My sense is that 2015 and 2016 will represent peak TV in America, and that we’ll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond.” How wrong he was. There has been a continued proliferation of series television that opened up the international markets to U.S. viewers and has made navigating the content like swimming in a kelp forest. There’s just too much out there so that finding an engaging series is very daunting, regardless of the streaming algorithms that scream “Based on your other choices, we think you’ll like…”

“This Way Up” makes it worth cutting through the kelp. My initial reluctance to dive in was that it seemed to pattern itself after “Fleabag,” that exceptional semi-autobiographical, multiple award-winning comedy by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But then again, if you’re going to be inspired by another show, why not choose the best. Although I initially felt that “This Way Up” was “Fleabag”-light, I became immersed in the characters, their quirks, their insecurities, their frailties, their faults, and most of all their warmth. “This Way Up” stands on its own and stands tall. And most of that is due to its creator, writer, and star Aisling Bea. Irish as humanly possible, she’s a former stand-up with a wicked sense of humor.

Aine and Shona are Irish sisters living in London. Shona is a phenom in the investment world, has a love interest every bit her equal, Vish, and  a new business partner in Charlotte. She and Charlotte may very well set the world on fire with their business plan for ethical investing.

Aisling Bea as Aine and Sharon Horgan as Shona in “This Way Up. Photo courtesy of Channel 4.

Aine, on the other hand, is a hot mess. We meet her as she’s being released from a rehab facility where she has spent the last weeks recovering from a nervous breakdown occasioned by a difficult breakup with her lover. In typical Aine fashion, she will always refer to it as her stay at the Spa. Aine has never met a bad situation that she can’t make worse. She talks too much, sleeps with the wrong guys, well sleeps with almost anyone who asks, and lives marginally in a flat where falling asleep is usually impossible because the walls are thin and her roommate and his girlfriend are always at it. What she does have is a job she really likes and is very good at. She teaches English as second language to a diverse group of immigrants and they love how she engages them with interactive lessons from “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

There is no question that the sisters are close but Shona is as restrained as Aine is uninhibited; and therein lies the comedy and the heart. Everyone encountered in this series is multi-dimensional and well-developed.

Two significant storylines that begin in season one and bleed into season two are particularly indicative of the delightful and unexpected complexity of this show. Shona, engaged to the previously married Vish, a former co-worker, feels a sexual attraction to Charlotte, her openly Lesbian business partner. Aine is on the cusp of beginning a relationship with the father of one of her private students, a true ethical lapse. The Shona and Charlotte storyline is the messier of the two as Shona reveals the kind of poor judgment usually exhibited by Aine. Aine’s poor choice will have an impact on a business opportunity.

Bea has brilliantly ended season two (this isn’t really a spoiler) with the specter of Covid, among other things that dangle dangerously overhead. I’ve never felt more bereft at the ending of a clearly continuing series. I felt like I was leaving my friends behind to an unknown fate, one that we’re just coming out of. Which relationships will survive and, more to the point, who will live with whom during the oncoming Pandemic?

The writing is complex, the characters continue to develop in surprising ways, the plot lines, seemingly slice-of-life veer in interesting directions. By the middle of season one Bea has successfully shrugged of the mantle of “Fleabag” and made this series unique and very entertaining. Ostensibly a comedy, it has enough dramedy elements to transcend the difficulties imposed on foreigners (that would be us) trying to understand the finer points of English humor.

Aisling Bea as Aine and Tobias Menzies as Richard in “This Way Up.” Photo courtesy of Channel 4.

The cast is amazing. Aisling Bea is pitch perfect, as well she should be since she created this role for herself. But more importantly, she cedes the stage to her co-stars, allowing them to shine. Sharon Horgan, Shona, is a star in the UK both as an actor (“Military Wives,” “Criminal: UK,” and “Catastrophe”) as well as a writer/creator (”Catastrophe” and the HBO series “Divorce”). Her appeal in this show is how she manages Shona’s sympathetic and antipathetic nature simultaneously.

Aasif Mandvi, Vish, late of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” embodies the kind of complexity that the child of immigrants driven to succeed and assimilate must feel. Tobias Menzies, most recently Prince Philip in “The Crown,” is Aine’s love interest Richard. He is the kind of actor who reveals depth in the squint of an eye even as the rest of him remains immobile.

And finally, a favorite actress of mine, Indira Varma, plays Charlotte with the kind of sensuality that attracts both women and men. Having first seen her on stage in 2013, I was blown away. A product of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she has had significant roles at the National Theatre and the Young Vic. Her series television credits also speak to her versatility. She is the kind of actress who unearths a character’s hidden insecurities and manipulations. It is impossible to take your eyes off her when she enters a scene.

Watch an episode and you’ll soon find yourself watching two and three at a time, blitzing through the first season and swimming a marathon through the even better second season.

Streaming now on Hulu.

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