By BRUCE DENNILL
Ordinary Lies / Directed by John McKay & Juliet May / 16DLS 8.5
Looking / Created by Michael Lannan / 18LSD 4.5
Mom: The Complete Second Season / Created by Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker / 13L 4
The relatively low-profile drama series Ordinary Lies works off a very simple but incredibly effective premise – that the banality of the rat race is as superficial as it is numbing, and that below the surface, the people we spend the bulk of our time with (our colleagues) are very likely who we think they are. To be fair, they’re unlikely to be as dysfunctional as this collection of characters, working in a motor dealership in some grey English context and regularly making spectacularly poor decisions that have damaging consequences. It’s understandable, on one level, that people with no real prospects beyond their current admin or sales positions will give the time of day to ridiculous notions that nobody who was content – or even vaguely satisfied – with their lot would even consider. That touch of reality allows viewers to empathise with the protagonists, even though understanding their motives is often tricky. Cleverly, the series focuses on the travails of a different character each episode, keeping the viewer in the dark as to who might do something daft next time around, while also allowing everyone’s individual narratives to compound into something richer and more complicated. The writing is superb – subtle enough to make things feel somehow sensible even as situations crumble and as tight and structured as its plot-lines are unpredictable. Great TV.
Examining the lives of a number of thirty- to fifty-something gay men and the culture in which they operate in contemporary San Francisco, Looking has been lauded as an authentic evocation of that scene. If that is the case, it’s disappointing, as rather than suggest any particular nuances in the experience of this community, it instead reinforces the stereotypes that tend to dominate discussions about the topic – generally unfairly (according to non-Hollywood types who express their annoyance at such clichés). Friends Patrick (Jonathan Graff), Agustin (Frankie J Alvarez) and Dom (Murray Bartlett) are all at different stages of their lives, but they have in common a level of ennui and dissatisfaction that they try to counteract by taking risks – sexually, financially, artistically – and thereby causing friction in pretty much every relationship they’re part of. The series is otherwise well made, with good pacing and some strong performances from its leads and supporting talent that includes Scott Bakula. For those who have never encountered the way of life depicted here, Looking is an interesting insight and an intermittently entertaining narrative, but for anyone who faces similar challenges to these characters in their own lives – or has friends who in that situation – these storylines feel forced and overcooked for effect.
However long your run of successes (and Chuck Lorre has been completely or partially behind Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory), there comes a time when the magic runs out, or at least the spell isn’t quite as effective. Mom has two capable stars in Anna Faris as Christy – a single mom on the way back from drug and alcohol addictions – and the generally sublime Allison Janney as Bonnie (also a recovering addict), but they’re not given the sort of material to work with that makes a comedy series sustainably funny. The laughs are superficial and crass, and what profundity there is comes from the mother-daughter bond that would and should exist between such characters were they real, and as such has little or nothing to do with the creativity of the writers. There are occasional moments of such over-the-top folly that guffaws are difficult to suppress, but for the most part, it’s only the awkward canned laughter that fills the gaps between the gags.