“Gavin & Stacey” Wrings British-Tinged Laughs From a Simple Premise
While a few networks have debuted a handful of their new shows already, we are in a moment of calm before the storm. In the next few weeks, a cavalcade of new and returning programs will hit the air. Naturally, the launch of the new season has commanded nearly all of the television-related attention.
Which is why I don’t understand why BBC America waited until late August to roll out the British sitcom “Gavin & Stacey” (Tuesdays at 8:40 - 9:20 p.m. Eastern). This cute, off-beat comedy, which first aired in 2007 on the BBC in the U.K., is worth watching, and would have been an ideal summer trifle had it arrived in June or July. I fear it will get lost with all eyes turned to the new season.
My introduction to “Gavin & Stacey” actually goes back to February, when, while on a Virgin flight to London, I watched two episodes on the airline’s personal video center. What I saw turned out to be the final installments in the six-episode first season, so I was especially excited to be able to catch the first four shows when BBC America announced it had picked up the program.
The fact that “Gavin & Stacey” is a British sitcom should not lead you to believe that it has much (anything?) in common with the Ricky Gervais version of “The Office.” “Gavin & Stacey” doesn’t aim nearly that high, mixing simple, silly, classic (or tired, depending how you look at it) sitcom premises, but giving them a smart, distinctly British spin. And while it is a single-camera, location-based production, it maintains the domestic, digital video, slightly generic feel of many British programs.
The plot is pretty simple: As the debut episode opens, Gavin (Mathew Horne), a twentysomething desk jockey at a computer firm in Essex, England, has arranged to meet Stacey (Joanna Page), also in her 20s, an office worker in Barry, Wales, for a date in London. Gavin and Stacey have been talking on the phone for some time (their companies do business with each other), and they have gotten along so well, they are ready to try the next step.
To protect themselves, each brings along a best friend. In Gavin’s case that is Smithy (James Corden), a portly, baby-faced, beer-guzzling, emotionally regressive loudmouth with a high-school-aged girlfriend we never see.
Smithy is worried about Gavin meeting up with Stacey, almost as nervous as he is that her friend will be unattractive. As Gavin and Stacey’s relationship progresses, Smithy is less and less happy, seeing Stacey as an interloper to his man-bond with Gavin.
Stacey’s second is Nessa (Ruth Jones), a portly, tattooed, chain-smoking, goth/punk chick with an exceptionally shady past, one that is revealed in dribs and drabs over the course of the series. For example, we learn that Nessa lost a husband to a firing squad in an unnamed country due to drug smuggling. Even more entertaining is her story about her affair with the guy who runs Harrods (she has no idea she is talking about Egyptian millionaire Mohammed Al-Fayed), who took her to football games (Al-Fayed owns the soccer team Fulham FC) and then passed her off to his son, who soon after stopped calling her (Al-Fayed’s son, Dodi, was killed in the car accident that also claimed the life of Princess Diana). That kind of joke demonstrates the irreverent tone of the comedy, something you don’t see as much of in American television.
Of course, Smithy and Nessa hook up on the date, but the kinky nature of their coupling and their banter before and after (which ranges from indifferent to hostile, but never to affectionate) are far bawdier than anything you would find on the American networks. And the dynamic between Smithy and Nessa, Smithy and Gavin, and Nessa and Stacey reminded me of a less toxic version of the quadrangle of relationships in the Rob Lowe/Demi Moore film “About Last Night.”
Gavin and Stacey, who both still live at home, have wacky families that, while very British, follow in the American TV tradition of wacky relatives. Gavin’s businessman father, Mick (Larry Lamb), has the patience of a saint (usually, anyway) with Gavin’s mother, Pam (Alison Steadman), a bleach blonde, trophy-wife-gone-to-seed who can be histrionic and discombobulated, especially when she’s been drinking (this being a British show, everyone drinks, and a lot).
Stacey’s Welsh clan includes her simple mother Gwen (Melanie Walters), who is still mourning the loss of her husband, and the stand-in man of the house (although he lives across the street), Stacey’s Uncle Bryn (Rob Brydon), a good-hearted Cliff Clavin with a Welsh accent, who intervenes in his relatives’ lives way more than he should (often making things worse), but does so completely to protect them, which he views as his life’s work (and the wish of his beloved dead brother). Brydon steals virtually every scene he’s in, equally adept at delivering pitch-perfectly timed punch lines and broad physical comedy. Brydon also shows emotional depth at key moments, like in a speech to get the two families to stop fighting. His words manage to be both heartfelt and funny.
But, of course, in a show called “Gavin & Stacey,” everything rests on the shoulders of the two love birds of the title. And they definitely make it work. Page is adorable as Stacey, who is infused with a mixture of youthful naiveté and the world weariness of someone who has had to overcome some major life troubles. Her combination of joy and vulnerability, and her genuine affection for the people in her life, make her an exceptionally likable lead. I would fully understand it if some viewers with an aversion to on-screen syrup found her to be annoyingly sweet. But the character and the performance work for me.
And Horne’s Gavin is every bit what you would expect from a son whose mother routinely refers to him as her “little prince.” He has excellent manners and is an all-around good guy, but he also has a mischievous streak born of someone who has been able to charm himself out of trouble in the past. Like when he’s quick to take “sickies” (sick days) so he and Stacey can spend time together. Gavin’s tight relationship with the socially inept Smithy is a bit of a stretch, but as they’ve known each other for so long, you can just chalk it up to loyalty.
In the end, these are two characters you root for, even if their courtship rushes forward in a manner that strains credibility.
Interestingly, the show’s creators and writers are the performers who play Smithy and Nessa, Corden and Jones. The two prove adept at setting up funny situations; penning smart, sharp lines; and creating characters who are likable, relatable, but also flawed. Again, the plots can be paper thin (Stacey is aghast when she wakes up her first morning at Gavin’s house with a pimple, and Stacey thinks Gavin is breaking up with her when he can’t talk freely with his boss next to him, for example), but the comedy and the characters pull the show through.
The six episodes of the first season run from the couple’s first date in the debut to a wedding in the finale, with a sea of road bumps in between. Should Stacey tell Gavin that this is her sixth engagement? And how will Gavin react when he finally learns of her dicey history with grooms-to-be? Will the families, who differ in nationality and economic station, be able to get along? And how will the friends handle this new relationship, and the new roles it creates for them?
These are all questions that you will want to see answered, and they will be addressed with a healthy dose of offbeat comedy. Some of the jokes hit the mark, while others go horribly awry. But in the end, following Gavin and Stacey is a journey worth taking.
Hopefully BBC America will pick up the second season (which has already aired in the U.K.). And if it does, hopefully the programmers will slide the show into the less competitive summer months next year, far away from the hustle of September and October. Summer would be the perfect season to spend some time with Gavin & Stacey, filling the down time until your favorite shows return.
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