Vicious, a new British comedy released last year in the U.K., premiered in the U.S. on Sunday on PBS. The show centers on two elderly gay men who have, after fifty years together, settled into a routine of chronic verbal abuse.
Freddie, played with consummate timing and tone by the flawless Ian McKellen, is an aging actor whose career is better described as "never-was" than "has-been" (He counts one appearance on Doctor Who among the highlights). His partner Stuart -- a dapper, shrieking Derek Jacobi -- is not a professional actor, though his histrionics are Oscar-worthy. Iwan Rheon, whom you may know as Ramsay Bolton from Game of Thrones, plays the likable hunk Ash that has just moved in upstairs, adding some external drama to lives otherwise spent manufacturing their own.
Naysayers want to pigeonhole Vicious as an anachronism: two great actors of the 21st century playing for cheap laughs at the expense of 20th-century stereotypes. Freddie compares Stuart's chatting to the shrieking of schoolgirls (and the comparison is apt). Stuart alludes to a bit of less-than-inconspicuous snooping by Freddie by calling him Miss Marple. Yes, the show teems with bitchy barbs and queeny antics; it tropes the Birdcage dynamic, a tried and true formula that is not original in and of itself.
But you can't fault an archer for hitting a bullseye just because they've had practice, and you can't ignore the long shots just because the short ones were easy. Not only are the jokes quite funny, but there are a number of ways in which the show provides a more nuanced perspective.
It's a feat worthy of praise that the show acknowledges both the gains made by LGBT people and the realities that not everyone shares in the bounty. Francis de la Tour (Harry Potter, History Boys), who plays Freddie and Stuart's deadpan chum Violet, flouts the "fag hag" stereotype; she doesn't suffer from unrequited love for Freddie or Stuart but merely enjoys their company (God knows why).
Iwan Rheon (whom I keep expecting to disembowel someone) plays the neighbor whose guileless unconcern for the flirtations of the two older men shows a modern straight man, unruffled by the attention of gay men. And the notion that two elderly gay men are not entirely out of the closet is not entirely out of the question. Being out isn't a definite function of age or place or date, though circumstances have a role.
The closet is a reality faced by many LGBT people today in many different contexts throughout the world. Many people are (or feel) unable to live their truths. One could argue that, for Freddie and Stuart, their closeted-ness inspires little sympathy -- affluent Englishmen in 21st-century London -- and that's a decision audiences are free to make. But a show that would ignore the reality of the closet altogether would be as uplifting and false as Vicious is problematic and accurate.
The real challenge lies in whether Vicious can muster some love for its star duo. McKellen and Jacobi, two arch thespians, trade barbs with gusto and prompt laughs bigger than the jokes deserve. But the show is long on affect and short on affection. It's like watching the Golden Girls without the late-night girl talk over ice cream. Without a little tenderness, Vicious might amount to nothing more than its title.
Freddie puts it best when, after launching enough salvos at Stuart to send him running from the room in tears to the laughter of the studio audience, he says, "I never can tell when I'm going too far." Sips tea. "But I'm always glad when I do!"
Watch the first episode of Vicious: