In the second episode of Vicious, a new British sitcom on PBS, over-the-hill actor Freddie Thornhill is invited to a fan club screening of an old Doctor Who episode in which he played a villain.
“One of the most iconic roles of my career!” Freddie boasts to his flatmate, Stuart.
“The only,” Stuart hisses dismissively.
The fact that the has-been is played by Sir Ian McKellen, an actor still drawing throngs to the multiplexes as Gandalf in THE HOBBIT films and Magneto in the X-MEN franchise, is only part of the inside-joke charm of this delightfully meta Britcom. In fact, there’s a lot to love here, including the great Sir Derek Jacobi (PBS’s I, Claudius) as Freddie’s catty partner Stuart, Frances de la Tour (Madame Maxime from the HARRY POTTER series) as their sex-starved friend Violet, and Iwan Rheon (Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Snow) as the straight hunk who is lusted after by practically everyone else in the cast.
Most of the action in Vicious takes place in the Covent Garden flat Freddie and Stuart have shared for nearly half a century, decorated with mementos of Freddie’s not-so-brilliant career (my favorite is a handbill for a play called Quick! Get Me A Vicar, which isn’t real, but should be). The two episodes I’ve seen both open with Stuart on the phone with his (unseen) elderly mother, who still doesn’t realize the two men are a couple.
“I’m waiting for the right time,” says Stuart.
“It’s been 48 years!” Freddie protests.
Created and written by American Gary Janetti, a writer and executive producer on Will & Grace, Vicious seems like an intentionally dated throwback to an earlier era, in tone, pacing, and production style. With its stage-bound sets and multi-camera, live-switched, shot-on-video patina, the show has the look and feel of a 1970s sitcom, with one key difference: the constantly bickering lead couple is gay. But while a same-sex relationship lies at the center of the comedy, it doesn’t bear the brunt of the punchlines, as it might have a generation ago. This is a sitcom about a delightfully dysfunctional couple, co-dependently conjoined for nearly half a century. That they happen to be gay is not what is inherently funny about the premise.
McKellen and Jacobi, both out gay men, invest the broad banter and contrived situations with a Noel Coward-level comedic gravitas. And the stage-like main set – which often features McKellen making dramatic entrances via a grand staircase – only contributes to the theatricality, lending the proceedings an air of pre-War, West End farce. McKellen, Jacoby, La Tour, and co-star Marcia Warren (as the dotty Penelope, an elderly neighbor who can’t remember Stuart’s name, despite knowing him for 50 years) are all award-winning stage veterans, and their quippy banter is unlike anything else you’re likely to see in another contemporary sitcom.
Vicious airs Sunday nights at 10:30 p.m. on PBS, and is streaming at PBS.org and via the PBS apps for iPhone, iPad, Roku, and Apple TV. The entire first season is also available on DVD from PBS and digital download from iTunes. There are five more episodes to come this season, with a second series expected. Pour yourself a very dry martini and enjoy.