It’s Connie (Saskia Reeves) who sets the wheels in motion when she wakes husband Douglas (Tom Hollander) on the eve of a family jaunt through Europe with the words, “I think our marriage might be over”. But the journey that follows is all Douglas’.
In happier times: Douglas (Tom Hollander), Connie (Saskia Reeves) and Albie (Tom Taylor) do the Louvre in Us.Credit:BBC First
Adapted by David Nicholls from his 2014 novel, the four-part BBC series Us is a portrait of a marriage in crisis, though it tries hard to straddle the line between comedy and drama, with a whopping dollop of travelogue for seasoning. It’s about a family in crisis too, as Douglas struggles to find a way to talk to his 17-year-old son Albie (Tom Taylor), whose permanently attached headphones function as a kind of protective shield.
Douglas isn’t a bad man, he’s just a bland one. He’s a biochemist-turned middle manager, a man of lists and spreadsheets, of maps and itineraries and order. If you were feeling uncharitable you’d say he was a killjoy; if you were being generous you’d call him a wet blanket.
Connie is (or was, until motherhood came along) an artist. Though we never see her work, we are meant to assume her worldview allows for a little more chaos and a lot more fun.
In flashback sequences (where he is played by Iain De Caestecker and she by Gina Bramhill), we learn how they came to be together, and the triumphs and tragedies that formed their unlikely marriage; in the present day, we mostly see them drifting apart. After 20-plus years of marriage these opposites no longer attract – at least as far as Connie is concerned. It’s not that she’s repulsed exactly, but with Albie soon to leave the nest she feels an impending sense of emptiness.
Despite the imminent collapse of a life, it’s all very civilised and a bit too bloodless to be truly compelling.
The decision to push on (itself so very English) with the planned trip may be pure plot contrivance, but thank goodness: watching this mid-life crisis play out in Surrey would have been a special kind of torture. Seeing it unfold in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Barcelona and the rest at least offers a balm to their souls, and to our eyes. In a travelless time, it’s a bitter-sweet reminder of what we’re missing.
Douglas’ response when Connie says she wants to separate in that opening scene is “but we’re going to be alone”. On the Continent, he soon is. First he loses Albie, then Connie, then his luggage. Stripped to the very basics, Douglas is forced to confront the question many of us spend lifetimes dodging: who am I, really? Or at least he would if Us were a different, slightly less British, piece of television.
There is undeniably a core of truth in the portrayal of a marriage that’s run out of steam, but there’s a certain reticence too. Us is alive to the gulfs that can emerge within relationships almost without anyone noticing until suddenly it’s impossible to see anything else. But it doesn’t really want to stare into that abyss for too long because, well, it might be a bit unsettling.
Death (of a marriage) in Venice.Credit:BBC First
It all makes for a show that’s enjoyable enough, but only in a rather middle-brow, middle-England, middle-of-the-road kind of way.
But I suppose any road is better than none right now, and as Emily in Paris proved, when they’re as appealing as the cobbled streets of Europe, we’re willing to forgive a multitude of storytelling sins.
Us, BBC First, Sundays at 8.30pm from January 31
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