There’s a man in England who celebrates Christmas every day. For years, he consumed turkey and Brussels sprouts daily but was advised to stop. He watches the Queen’s speech every day and opens a gift he’s wrapped for himself. He started doing this when his wife left him.
This is all true. A documentary has been made about him, and he’s been written about. Thing is, what emotion does this story draw from you? Is it all very sad, macabre or just funny? In England, they might think differently from you and me.
Mining a stratum of confusions about how to react is the specialty of Julia Davis. Her comedy, in the series Nighty Night, How Not To Live Your Life and Camping, is usually called “dark” or “twisted,” but the reality of her work is beggared by the usual critical terms. She trades in cringe-inducing, knuckle-gnawing confusion. The issue of how to respond to the material she creates bewilders a person. Me, I think of her as Pinter-esque. She shares with Harold Pinter a gift for adding menace to absurdity.
Sally4Ever (Sunday, HBO, 10:30 p.m.) is her new series, and it is funny in a frightening way. On the surface it’s straightforward – a bored thirtysomething woman Sally (Catherine Shepherd) is tired of her stuffy boyfriend David (Alex Macqueen), and just after she’s agreed to marry him, she has a lesbian fling with the glamourpuss Emma (Davis). It’s all about a woman throwing away the mundane heterosexual life and finding bliss in a same-sex relationship.
But it isn’t. Emma, a character Davis plays with furious aplomb, eventually emerges as a shallow egomaniac. She is not the sociopath-lesbian figure that has regrettably featured as a trope in Hollywood movies for a while. (From Basic Instinct to Black Swan; there is a school of study on this strange trope.) She is, under the glamourous, acid-tongued surface, just a lazy, manipulative, spoiled brat.
Within much of the comedy Davis creates is a livid portrait of people whose lives are limited and whose visions of another, better life are non-existent. In this, Davis is putting the British class system under a microscope. She’s discovered a category of people who don’t really understand their situation or recognize a wider society. (Extrapolate what you like about Brexit.) They’re numbed. At times, this provides opportunities for hilarious mockery. When we see Sally at work at a marketing company, we’re seeing material as daft and uncomfortably funny as the original version of The Office.
A good deal of the humour, sour but scathing, is aimed at the main male character, David. The most boring man in England, obviously. Reduced to a mess of tears and neediness by Sally’s lesbian fling, he can’t cope. There is further comedy wrung from Sally’s incredibly boring parents. There is explicit sex; there is toilet humour, and in the midst of it all, Emma, demanding attention and coffee and pastries.
Some reviews will insist that Sally4Ever is a misanthropic relationship comedy. There is deadpan humour galore, for sure. After her first experience with lesbian sex, Sally tells David she doesn’t find him attractive. “Since when?” he wails, tears streaming out of him. “I don’t know,” Sally says. “The last seven years or so?” Later, Emma sets out to destroy David. She mocks his penis, and David counters that his doctor told him it’s just below-average in size. Emma says that doctors are told to say that to stop men from suicide.
What you’ve got here, as Davis cranks up Emma’s blithe viciousness, is less about same-sex flings and mocking mundane heterosexual couples than it is about Julia Davis herself as a comedy writer. What Emma does in destroying others is what Davis does with her outrageous misanthropic comedy.
That’s an extrapolation. What’s not mere theory is the Pinter-like sense of threat and intimidation that flows under scenes of domestic life being shattered by the intruder Emma.
The three main actors are superb. Macqueen has the hardest role as the pathetic David, and he is peerlessly servile as a shattered man, a figure of cringe-inducing fun. As Sally, Shepherd is a marvel, a woman so bereft of pleasure that she cannot do much in her life except stare glumly and nod her head occasionally. Davis is, well, outrageously compelling.
HBO is doing an interesting trick with Sally4Ever. It airs directly after Camping, the show Lena Dunham adapted from a Julia Davis original but got wrong. Dunham ruinously misinterpreted Davis’s humour. Now we can all watch that misfire, followed by the original creator firing her hard, hilarious and often harrowing humour on all cylinders. It’s not for everyone. Depends on how you react to macabre humour.