Here’s a fun game that everyone can play – I call it Vicious Bingo. Pick a review of ITV sitcom Vicious – really, any review at all – and then award yourself a point any time you come across one of the following words or phrases: creaky, camp, old-fashioned, like a farce, laughter track, theatrical, John Inman, stereotypical, hammy, not as good as The Job Lot, homophobic. The winner is the person with the most points. The prize is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use the word “groupthink” in casual conversation.
If you haven’t heard of Vicious, it was co-created by gay playwright Mark Ravenhill and gay sitcom writer Gary Janetti, and it’s written by the latter. It stars gay actor Sir Derek Jacobi and gay actor/ film star/ gay rights activist Sir Ian McKellen in the leading roles of an elderly gay couple. (That’s a lot of gay – something you might want to take into consideration when you read straight people accusing it of homophobia.) I’ve watched the first couple of episodes now (as can you, if you live in the UK – they’re available on ITV Player), so I feel able to comment on some of these criticisms.
Let’s start with ‘laughter track': the show doesn’t, so far as I can tell, have one.
A laughter track is a separate recording of an audience laughing at something else, and it’s added to the soundtrack of a show during post-production. Vicious, on the other hand, was recorded in front of a live audience. The sound you hear is, so far as I can tell, not a laughter track added in post-production but the sound of the live audience laughing at the jokes as they heard them. (If it is a laughter track, it’s incredibly well done – the actors don’t just pause for the laughter, they raise their voices to be heard over it, an instinctive reaction that would be incredibly difficult to simulate in an empty studio, or in front of an audience that wasn’t laughing.) This evidence of hundreds of people finding the show funny is, of course, inconvenient for critics insisting that the show isn’t funny, so the references to a laughter track are perhaps not surprising.
What about ‘like a farce’? Well, a farce is a very specific kind of theatrical comedy in which a mundane situation becomes gradually absurd via a series of small developments, all of which are, on their own, plausible. The plot of a farce is typically very intricate and fast-paced, with ever-more outrageous contrivances required to preserve the multiple secrets that characters are keeping from each other. There have been attempts to replicate elements of farce in TV sitcoms – some episodes of Frasier were farcical in the best sense, as were some episodes of Fawlty Towers – but Vicious is not amongst them. In fact, it’s almost precisely the opposite of a farce: its comedy (whether you think it good or bad) is driven by character and dialogue, and it’s very loosely plotted. Its closest theatrical parallel is to drawing-room comedy, not farce.
As for the suggestion that the acting is ‘hammy’ and the style ‘theatrical’, the only response I can come up with is “well, duh”. I realise that’s not as articulate as I usually try to be. The trouble is I find it hard to believe that anyone could watch award-winning actors of subtlety and nuance like McKellen, Jacobi and Frances de la Tour and reach the conclusion that they were aiming for ‘naturalism’ and missed: that the ‘hammy’ performances in Vicious are an accidental failing. Obviously they aren’t, just as the stagy nature of the set design isn’t accidental either. It’s transparently obvious that Vicious is not intended to be ‘naturalistic’, and that it’s constantly brandishing its deliberate artificiality directly in the face of the audience. Criticising it for not adhering to the conventions of ‘naturalistic’ TV is like criticising ketchup for not tasting like coffee – what on earth made anyone think it was supposed to?
The conviction that all TV comedy must be ‘naturalistic’ is incredibly limiting. For a start, there’s nothing natural about ‘naturalism’ – it’s just a different set of artificial conventions, one which also has little to do with real life as it’s actually experienced. (Anyone who’s ever worked in an office knows that if you filmed one you wouldn’t end up with The Office, you’d end up with 9 hours of people staring blankly at computer screens as they try to find the error in a spreadsheet.) The Job Lot – which launched on ITV on the same night – is impeccably ‘naturalistic’, and has garnered warm reviews from critics who slammed Vicious, but it’s no great shakes. For a start, it’s extremely derivative – just because we haven’t seen a sitcom set in a job centre before doesn’t mean we haven’t seen this scenario a dozen times. In addition, and like that other derivative-but-praised-to-the-skies show Parks & Recreation, it’s entirely dependent for its success on the considerable charm of its performers. But it conforms to the conventions that critics have come to expect of a sitcom, and therefore it’s judged automatically good while Vicious is judged automatically bad.
If it’s lazy to argue that Vicious is bad just because it violates the conventions of cool comedy, it’s equally lazy to make reference to John Inman, and specifically his character in Are You Being Served?, Mr Humphries. It’s clear that the critics were scrabbling around in a desperate attempt to think of another camp sitcom character, but the comparison is misplaced. (Tom Farrell from Gimme Gimme Gimme would have been a better comparison: he was a gay, vicious, vain, struggling actor.)
The entire basis of Mr Humphries’ character was that he had not acknowledged to himself the homosexuality that was blatantly apparent to the audience. That’s not the case with the lead characters in Vicious; they’re a self-acknowledged gay couple, entirely out to themselves, even if they do still have a toe in the closet in the way that a younger couple probably wouldn’t. They’re also emphatically post-Wolfenden: their 48-year relationship means they would have got together at more-or-less the time that Wolfenden’s recommendation to decriminalise sex between men was being enacted in England & Wales. One of the things that made Are You Being Served? behind the times when it began in 1972 – and wildly anachronistic by the time it finished 13 years later – was that Mr Humphries seemed like a pre-Wolfenden character: one whose homosexuality had to be hinted at via innuendo and giggles, rather than simply acknowledged. There’s no parallel of that sniggering approach to the topic in Vicious – the characters are flatly, unambiguously gay.
His anomalous pre-Wolfenden status was one of the reasons that, by the mid 80s, Mr Humphries had begun to attract the ire of gay rights activists, but there were also those who objected to him because of his mannerisms – because he was, in the words of the generic criticism, a “camp, mincing stereotype”. It seems likely that some of those people who are accusing Vicious of homophobia are responding to a similar knee-jerk conviction that the only gay men who are fit to appear on TV are gay men who are entirely straight-acting. This is not a view I share. It’s one thing to argue for greater diversity in the kinds of gay men who appear on screen (though gay men are at least there in the first place – bi and trans people are almost invisible, and lesbians are significantly under-represented). It’s quite another to insist that it’s homophobic to show camp and effeminate men at all.
At its worst, this is a prejudice in its own right, one that’s insidious when it’s internalised (as I should know), and poisonous when it’s used by one gay man to attack another. Even at best, this evident desire to make every gay man on TV into a cross between Jesus and Gandhi is seriously counter-productive. It’s counter-productive because these kinds of characters are worthy but dull – the most memorable and interesting characters are always the ones who have flaws. It’s especially counter-productive when it comes to comedy, because in comedies these kinds of sober, serious characters are never the comedic leads. There is a serious, sober character in Vicious: he’s the straight ‘straight man’ played to perfection by Iwan Rheon, and he doesn’t get any real laughs of his own. Gay characters developed in the way that some people have called for could never have been the leads in an out-and-out comedy. With those kind of characters in the lead, Vicious would have ended up as a cloyingly sentimental comedy drama instead, like – shudder – The New Normal.
In my opinion, Vicious is not a great sitcom, although I can watch it with genuine pleasure – more pleasure than I feel watching The Job Lot, which seems to me far more laboured and contrived in its own way. Overall, Vicious occupies much the same place in my affections as The Big Bang Theory. I’m aware of its faults, and I wouldn’t be devastated if it got cancelled, but I’d still rather watch it than not.
One thing I can say for certain is that the things I like about Vicious are precisely the things that it has been most heavily criticised for. Take away the theatricality, the campness and viciousness and all you’d be left with is an entirely formulaic domestic sitcom. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough of those to last me a lifetime.