Posted in Television

Down the Tubes?

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Kate…You Should Have Been Allowed to Stay

CAUTION–THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 3 OF “LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX.”

It definitely made for a great episode. But is it good for the long haul?

“Last Tango in Halifax” recently saw both a glorious beginning and an intolerable conclusion. Caroline and Kate were married in a heartfelt ceremony, only to have it all end the next day when Kate was killed by a hit and run driver. Prior to her death her baby was delivered via C-section, leaving Caroline a single mother.

To be honest I was livid when I first heard of this pending turn of events. I had loved “Last Tango in Halifax” from the start, primarily for its avoidance of cliché. But elements of soap started creeping in during Season 2 with Gillian’s confession to Caroline that she had murdered her abusive husband, and things got even sudsier this season when Alan learned he had fathered a son during an extramarital fling many years ago. But Kate’s death? This one hit the TriFecta of soap: killing off the (1) black (2) lesbian, (3) but keeping her around in spirit, thus indulging in Dead Denny Syndrome (™”Grey’s Anatomy”).

Let’s take these one at a time, shall we?

It’s an unfortunate fact that the majority of persons of color (indeed, practically all minorities) on television shows in the U.S. and the U.K. play supporting characters, not leads–sidekicks, if you will, whether love interests or not. And we all learned as far back as the cheesy movies we watched as kids that if there’s a need to show off a leading character’s depth of emotion, the sidekick gets killed off. Given what a trope this is, you wonder how Tonto ever made it to the end of “The Lone Ranger Show.”

Killing Off the Lesbian has been another trope for decades in fiction, film and television, contrary to the protestations of Sally Wainwright, “Last Tango”‘s creator and writer, though I suspect she’s about to get a swift education from the LGBT community. Kate and Caroline, played superbly by Nina Sosanya and Sarah Lancashire, respectively, were a terrific couple—interesting, funny and a joy to watch. The best thing about Kate was that she called Caroline on her bullshit. Their differences provided great chemistry—Caroline used to taking charge and making quick decisions, Kate sweet but with a will of iron. It took them two full seasons and three break-ups to finally get together, and Sally Wainwright ends it the day after the wedding?

Why is it the intriguing relationships get thrown in the trash with such disheartening regularity? Stephen Bochco, creator of “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law” was infamous for this. In the former he drove a stake in the heart of the Henry Goldblum/Faye Furillo pairing. Here was the type of couple that had not been seen on network television before: a blended relationship in which both were divorced and each had at least one child. Both had been around the block and now they’re trying to make it work. It may sound like nothing special now, but keep in mind this aired only a few short years after CBS demanded that Mary Tyler Moore’s iconic Mary Richards (“Oh, Mr. Grant!) be changed from a divorcee to a single woman. So Henry and Faye, as real as they became, had to go. And as for “L.A. Law”, I need only invoke the name “Rosalind Shays” to prove my point. She was the formerly villainous attorney who had an affair with senior partner Leland MacKenzie. Finally we were treated to something groundbreaking for its time—the affair of two characters in late middle age. Does Bochco pursue this? No way. For the sake of “drama” he kills her off by having her step into an open elevator shaft. A huge mistake more accurately characterized as “jumping the shark.”

Kate may be dead but she’s not really gone—Caroline, in WWKD (What Would Kate Do?) mode, summons her spirit on a consulting basis. What to name the baby? Should I hire a nanny? I can’t do this alone. So Kate is there to give her advice and occasionally a verbal boot in the behind. On the one hand, I’d never turn down the opportunity to see Nina Sosanya on-screen. Plus we’re getting the return of opinionated Kate from Season 1. But let’s face it, what we’re really seeing is “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir MacKenzie-Dawson.” Throw in a brain tumor and you’ve got Dead Denny Syndrome.

But on the other hand…(and it kills me to write this) Sally Wainwright produced a superb episode showing the aftermath of Kate’s death.

From the beginning, with the sleight of hand presence of Kate, discussing baby names with Caroline, who we gradually and shockingly realize is dressing for Kate’s funeral, to meeting Kate’s mother (Michelle Hurst) and little Flora Grace, to seeing Caroline so bereft, it’s heartbreaking but the tone is so right. The small talk, the reminiscences, the mild jokes—Sally got it all, as well as the best scene on the show since Caroline and Kate had their talk in the garden in Season 1. Greg, Kate’s friend from Oxford and Flora’s biological father, approaches Caroline with an offer to help with the baby’s care. He acknowledges that he and Caroline got off on the wrong foot (to put it mildly), and makes it clear that had events been different, he would have stayed out of the picture. But the man is so sincere and so concerned for both Caroline and the baby’s welfare that Caroline, displaying a type of kindness we hadn’t seen before, runs interference for him with Kate’s mother, who everyone knows considers Greg an idiot. Caroline still isn’t sold on having Greg care for the baby, but I suspect pep talks from Spirit Kate will wear her down. Besides, that nanny who waltzed in at the end of the episode sounds ditzy as hell.

We’re used to superb acting from the “Last Tango in Halifax” cast, but what transpired during this episode was above and beyond. Sarah Lancashire was just tremendous, as was Nicola Walker during the uncomfortable scene when Gillian told Caroline she was marrying Robbie. Anne Reid as Celia perfectly timed that “Do you fancy her?” when Caroline hesitated over endorsing Gillian’s upcoming wedding. I hope we see more of Marcus Garvey as Greg and especially Michelle Hurst as Ginika, Kate’s mom. That ever-expanding family tree in the show’s opening credits needs replenishment.

Sally Wainwright’s stated purpose in killing off Kate was to provide a catalyst to bring Celia and Caroline back together after the fall-out over the latter’s wedding. However, I think in the end the absence of Kate, and what she brought to her relationship with Caroline as spouse/lover/friend/sparring partner will result in a poorer show.

While the aftermath was beautifully done, it shouldn’t have had to be done at all.

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Posted in Television

Layers

"Masters of Sex": Prelude
“Masters of Sex”: Prelude

We seem to be in a golden age of drama, whether cable or streamed. There may be more water cooler shows than water coolers these days, as “Breaking Bad,” “Orange is the New Black,” “House of Cards” and a number of others can easily attest. What marks each, regardless of subject, is the complexity of the writing and the astonishing ability of the actors to play the intricate levels of emotion demanded by their roles. It’s a welcome feast.

Case in point: A scene in an early episode of the recently concluded season of “Last Tango in Halifax.” You’ll recall that Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Kate (Nina Sosanya) have finally, sort of, gotten together, though they’re not out at work (Caroline is the headmistress of the rather tony school at which Kate teaches). On this occasion, as they walk to school assembly, Caroline flapping in her academic robe, they discuss Caroline’s suggestion that Kate sell her house, move in with her and help finance Caroline’s buy-out of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s interest. Kate’s not sure Caroline is making this offer for the right reasons until Caroline blurts out “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

"Last Tango in Halifax": Negotiations Await
“Last Tango in Halifax”: Negotiations Await

Talk about a game changer. From that point on, as the characters discuss property appraisals, they wear the dippiest smiles—both realize Caroline has in essence proposed. But then Kate, pressured by that chapel of students waiting on the headmistress, as well as a desire to put her own cards on the table, comes out with “I want to have a baby.” In the stress of the moment Caroline bursts out laughing—at the incongruous setting of the discussion, at her own audacity in moving things along with Kate, at Kate’s desire to have a first child at the age of 42. Fortunately Sarah Lancashire has the talent to make us see all of this in an instant, which is why this scene is one of my “Tango” favorites.

The second season of “Masters of Sex,” though at the darker end of the spectrum, plays at the same level. It began with a bang (no pun intended), when Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) was forced to fend off a series of passes from the leering doctors who thought hers was the orgasmic body in William Masters’ lecture film. While there have been other fireworks along the way, the best scenes this season have been those exploring the relationship between her and Bill (Michael Sheen). In Season 1 we saw them become subjects in their own study, as they practically swore an oath they were only doing it for the good of science. But despite their best efforts, things became complicated.

Their scenes together are a fascinating study of emotional layers, both as they accrete and as they’re peeled away. We see their hotel room trysts and watch as they fantasize for each other, revealing more about their lives than they’re otherwise capable of doing. A romantic relationship it’s not–at one point Ginny prevents Bill from kissing her, reminding him “That’s not what we do”—but they’re certainly obsessed with each other, both sexually and in terms of who has the power in their relationship. Bill is a physician, so his credentials outshine Ginny’s, the college dropout. Ah, but she’s divorced and free to embark on any relationship she wants, despite his protests, while he’s in a marriage that clearly isn’t fulfilling for him. At this point his need is greater, and she’s not as available as he would want.

All of this is beautifully played by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. The nuances they bring to their roles are astonishing—I especially enjoy her self-conscious “educated” accent. In a recent episode they repaired to their usual hotel suite and the methods of their sexuality study easily morphed into foreplay (She ordered him to strip and, stopwatch in hand, monitored his physical responses as he masturbated). Every moment was charged with about six different emotions, and these actors made it feel as if we were eavesdropping, as well we were.

Michael Sheen is a fascinating Bill Masters—I still can’t believe he wasn’t nominated for an Emmy. Masters’ confrontation with the black newspaper editor who intends to publish a profile detailing his troubled employment history is a showcase of great acting. To stop publication, Masters threatens to reveal that his study can confirm every conceivable stereotype of African-American sexuality (false). He blusters, he pounds the table, yet Sheen simultaneously makes us sense his uneasiness and self-disgust. He has the talent to distinguish this scene from the one we saw last season when Masters blackmailed Provost Barton in order to have his study reinstated at the hospital. During that conversation Sheen made us see Masters’ confidence, since Barton had something to hide; in contrast, despite the noise he makes to the newspaper editor, Masters is mentally cowering. It’s quite a performance.

We’ve seen the same level of complexity in other relationships on the show, especially Ginny’s friendship with Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), her one-time boss who’s now dying of ovarian cancer. Lillian is fighting the good fight, undergoing debilitating radiation treatments to combat the metastases in her brain, but she’s reached a point where she just wants some peace. Yet Ginny refuses to conceive of someone’s wanting to stop; giving up is not in her lexicon. In the “Blackbird” episode, Lillian finally had her own way and in doing so, taught Ginny how to let go. On a different note, Betty, a former prostitute and early subject of Masters’ study, sees her marriage end when her lesbian relationship comes to light. But she’s a survivor, above all, and goes on to become a real estate broker, a CPA and evidently the manager of Bill Masters’ practice. The fact that he’s now taking orders from her is a delightful twist.

If you’re not watching “Masters of Sex,” you should. It’s some of the best TV around.

Posted in Television

Tangoing Again

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Two of the Best Around: Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire

As an avid follower of two great British TV shows—“Downton Abbey” of course, but also “Last Tango in Halifax” which in my opinion is the better series—I’ve been suffering from acute delayed gratification ever since the new seasons of both started airing in the UK. Dodging spoilers and hanging on until PBS starts up “Downton Abbey” again didn’t pose a problem for me. But going tango-less, particularly since PBS has been dead silent about airing Season Two, was just too much. Fortunately a very kind soul posted each episode of the new season as it aired on youtube. Needless to say, for six weeks I couldn’t wait for Wednesday nights to indulge.

Unless you want to delay until PBS finally gets off its horse and imports “Last Tango” once again, you probably should stop reading at this point (horrors!). Because SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.

To be frank I was a little put off by the first episode, which relied heavily on the same trick that ended the show’s first season—a round robin of characters repeating a choice bit of information initially told in confidence. At the end of Season One it was Caroline’s relationship with Kate; this time around it was Gillian unwisely telling Caroline she had slept with John, the latter’s soon-to-be ex-husband. Caroline, in a combination of shock and a bit of residual possessiveness, spills this to Celia who repeats it to Alan, and so on. Much messiness ensues: as you can imagine, some characters fall out with each other and some really raw past history comes out.

But Sally Wainwright, creator and author of all six episodes, once again got the ship on an even keel and delivered some great storytelling. That family tree we see in the opening credits of the show expanded with the introduction of Celia’s sister, Muriel (Gemma Jones) who many years ago stole and married Celia’s boyfriend, post-Alan. While their issues were aired, they weren’t resolved, which hopefully will lead to Muriel’s return next season. We also met Ted, Alan’s brother now living overseas, who arrives for Alan and Celia’s “proper” wedding after their secret ceremony at the registrar’s office.

Although their weddings bracketed the show’s second season, Alan and Celia took something of a back seat to their respective daughters. Gillian’s on-again, off-again relationship with Robbie, the messy denouement of her affair with John and some old business with her father figured prominently, as did her becoming a grandmother courtesy of 17-year-old Raff and his girlfriend. And on the other side of the family, Caroline, while very much in love with Kate, ran away from “out and proud” faster than the speed of light, resulting in a painful breakup.

But what ultimately made this season of “Last Tango” extraordinary were the performances of Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire as Gillian and Caroline. These two play a scene together like nobody’s business. From the first episode, when Gillian hesitatingly confides that she slept with John, to their drunken afternoon of wedding planning for their parents, to their comforting each other (prematurely) for being wall flowers at the wedding—it’s so real you feel like you’re eavesdropping. The scene when Gillian confesses the darkest secrets of her life to Caroline is a textbook of acting excellence: the way Nicola Walker delivers Gillian’s drunken but controlled narrative as Sarah Lancashire’s Caroline silently takes all this in was riveting. The morning after, with Gillian afraid of the impact and Caroline wrestling with why Gillian confided this in the first place, was just as skillfully done.

Best of all, Alan and Celia’s “proper” wedding was a marvelous end to the season: Caroline’s graceful speech about her mother; Alan, backed by his choreographed grandsons, serenading Celia with an old country-western tune; and loveliest of all, Kate and Caroline reunited and snogging on the dance floor with the others reacting totally in character (Lawrence clapping his hand over his eyes in horror to the amusement of his friend Angus was the funniest). This is exactly why “Last Tango in Halifax” is the most enjoyable television show to appear in a long time.

Bravo to the BBC for ordering up Season Three. I can’t wait.

Posted in Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Busy October

Duty Hurts
Duty Hurts

Halloween is just around the corner, the days are getting shorter—and colder—and much is percolating on the tube and in the opera house. I was going to lead off by chewing over Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” which premiered at the Met on Monday, but Showtime’s “Homeland” has absolutely pushed itself to the head of the line.

We’ve just been paid back tenfold for the long wait for Season Three to take flight. In the immortal words of Ira Gershwin, “How long has this been going on?” Was the whole “Carrie’s off her meds, Saul rats her out to Congress” progression part of this? Or was it her call to her father, promising to do whatever Saul wanted, that led to setting up the con? In either case, the reveal was like a big tasty meal. I fell for it almost, but not quite, hook, line and sinker—I found it hard to believe Carrie would sell out. During her conversation with the law firm emissary, I had a strong feeling she’d play the other side for all she could get, then use that cultivated relationship to get back in Saul’s good graces. The show runners did a masterful job with their reveal—the sound of gasps across the country last week had to have registered on the Richter scale.

Sunday night’s TV logjam has eased somewhat now that “Last Tango in Halifax” has (regrettably) ended its first season on PBS. I especially enjoyed Gillian’s scenes in the season-ender—she’s been somewhat of “the other daughter” in comparison to the more complicated Caroline—but her love and affection for her father had never been more apparent. And she scored mightily in what was perhaps the funniest scene in the series: her morning-after with John. She’s got her head under the hood of her Land Rover, fixing that “pigging clutch,” when he comes strolling out, all lovey-dovey. She’s all “I had an itch last night. I scratched it. Tea’s on the stove” and John is dumbstruck that she isn’t all a-swoon. Not to mention that Paul’s sitting right there with his nose in an auto repair book, trying not to laugh like hell. A great job by Nicola Walker as Gillian.

“Boardwalk Empire” continues its impressive comeback. I especially enjoyed the surprise meeting between Arnold Rothstein and Margaret (mutual blackmail is a marvelous thing), and I’m looking forward to when Gaston Means sells out young Mr. Knox, which he most assuredly will when the time with Nucky is ripe. I’m delighted to see “Boardwalk Empire” expand its horizons into Wall Street (so important in the 1920’s, both historically and culturally), as well as maintaining its excellent continuity by bringing back some key supporting characters like Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (James Cromwell) and U.S. Attorney Esther Randolph (Julianne Nicholson), no matter how briefly. It’s been an exceptionally rich and absorbing season.

Speaking of Julianne Nicholson, I honestly didn’t recognize her when she showed up as the stern Dr. Lillian Paul on “Masters of Sex,” a show that finally clicked in its third episode, “Standard Deviation.” This was an hour when the men were front and center, featuring tremendous performances by Beau Bridges and especially Michael Sheen. After we witnessed their early mentor/student relationship develop and grow, we were forced to watch it crumble as Masters, with his professional back to the wall, blackmails the man who did so much for him into funding his study on sexuality. When Masters arrives home, exhausted and full of self-disgust at what he’s just done, even his wife’s announcement that she’s pregnant is not enough to produce a smile. “Masters of Sex” will hopefully continue to impress.

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Alice Coote and Paul Appleby: “Two Boys”

Having attended the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” on Monday night, I can appreciate the mixed reviews the work has received.

Based a true story, the opera, set in 2001, focuses on the how and why 16-year-old Brian stabbed a 13-year-old boy he met on the internet (Plotwise this should be taking place a decade earlier, when the internet was still a new frontier). As you can imagine, the production features every technological bell and whistle around, what with projections of chat room dialogue and a terrific light show representing the ethereal nature of cyberspace. But the wow factor wears off sooner than you’d think. Opera demands character as well as story, and this is where “Two Boys” is somewhat lacking.

Muhly is well-known for his choral writing; his talent in this regard is on ample display here. He produces a textured wall of sound to represent the millions of dialogues on the internet, the faces of the chorus illuminated by their open lap tops. But, as Detective Inspector Strawson (Alice Coote) notes, this universe is almost without soul, lacking the richness of human contact. In fact it isn’t until Strawson returns home, after her first interview with Brian, and muses about this very topic, drink in hand, that “Two Boys” does what opera does best: it illuminates thought and emotion. There are only two other points at which the work came alive for me—Brian’s raw encounter with Peter, the internet figure who challenges him to masturbate in front of a webcam, and the summing-up at the opera’s conclusion, again voiced by Strawson. Unfortunately, “Two Boys” shows a great deal of surface but too little else.

Alice Coote was excellent in what can only be described as the Jane Tennison role; regardless of the opera’s title, she was awarded the last bow and rightly so. Paul Appleby is a very talented Mozart tenor, but his appearance as Brian demonstrates why trouser roles exist. In build and posture there’s no hiding he’s a grown man; matters became creepy when he played scenes with the impressive boy soprano Andrew Pulver, as his victim, Jake, with whom his character has (off-stage) sex. Keith Miller, as the malevolent Peter, was riveting both vocally and dramatically—I would love to hear him sing Claggart.

“Two Boys” is Nico Muhly’s first opera. At the ripe old age of 32, he should go on to produce a significant body of work. I look forward to what he says next.

Posted in Television

Embarassment of Riches

Forget about football and Sunday afternoon TV (as a New York Giants fan I plan to have season-long amnesia). The best stuff on the tube these days starts at 8:00 pm with (drum roll, please): “Last Tango in Halifax,” followed by the “Boardwalk Empire” and “Homeland” collision at 9:00, and rounding out the evening at 10, “Masters of Sex” (I was tempted to say “bringing up the rear,” but more about that later). The last time I watched so much back-to-back TV was in the hey day of “All in the Family,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and Mary Tyler Moore, when staying in on Saturday nights was a must.

be season 4Of the three cable premium shows, “Boardwalk Empire” has surprised me the most this season. It’s come roaring back from the Bobby Cannavale craziness of last year, and each character arc seems more absorbing than the next. I especially like Nucky’s Florida venture, which gets us out of the darkness of liquor warehouses and gambling rooms and into a world of sunlight and straw boaters. Patricia Arquette as Sally is a welcome addition and the palm trees are lovely. Some characters are in flux—Rothstein is starting his downward slide (if “Boardwalk Empire” sticks to its timetable, he should be gunned down the season after next), Richard has lost the stomach to kill and Van Alden has been co-opted by the Capone gang, not entirely to his pleasure. Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse (wonderfully played by Jeffrey Wright) have already butted heads once, and I certainly don’t expect their next encounter to be a pleasant one. And there’s a truly worthy villain in the form of Special Agent Warren Knox of what will soon be known as the FBI. His ostensibly mild-mannered yet sadistic interrogation of Eddie Kessler, ultimately resulting in the latter’s suicide, will hopefully come back to haunt him.

However, two other plot lines are shaping up to be the best “Boardwalk Empire” has featured since Jimmy Darmody’s death. Gillian is now a junkie, and whether she knows it or not, is being played by Roy Phillips. But the who, why and how have yet to be revealed. Is he law enforcement, a private detective or yet another gangster? Is he investigating the disappearance of that Jimmy look-alike Gillian snuffed last season? What is his game? Of equal interest is Nucky’s bailing out his nephew Willie in the wake of his actions at college. I hope Nucky doesn’t look to this kid as a replacement for Jimmy who, while he had his weaknesses, was never weak like Willie (Jimmy would never have acquiesced to throwing a comrade under the bus the way Willie caved to laying the blame for the spiked liquor on his roommate). If, as Nucky says, blood is all, I suspect he’s going to wish for a transfusion before long. And if I were Mickey Doyle, I’d leave town now—Nucky will no doubt reciprocate for Mickey’s gift of booze to the kid to begin with.

It’s great to have the “Boardwalk Empire” pot percolating again. On the other hand, “Homeland” seems to be a bit slow off the blocks.  I’m not happy with the return of Crazy Carrie, even if her tipping point was reached when Saul offered her up as a sacrificial lamb. The first two episodes of the season suffered by Brody’s absence, though Peter Quinn’s additional screen time was tremendous. However, I’m so tired of Dana Brody I wish she’d be hit by a bus—why the show runners are so intrigued by her is absolutely beyond me (I like Morena Baccarin, but as far as I’m concerned the entire Brody family is over). I’m looking forward to better in the future.

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It’s All For Science

The jury is still out for me on “Masters of Sex.” When I first saw the previews on Showtime, I thought it would be a two-hour film; instead it’s a multi-episode series. Can a TV show really be built around all that viewing of screwing? There are some good things to be had: the wittiest opening titles I’ve ever seen; “Mad Men”-era decor and clothes; Beau Bridges as the predictably stuffy hospital chair; and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, former nightclub singer, college drop-out and swinger. On the other hand, much of what’s aired so far was covered in “Kinsey,” the 2004 bio-pic starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney (Oddly enough, unless I missed it, the name “Kinsey” has yet to be uttered on “Masters of Sex”). The tone is inconsistent—when naughty things are going on, the show is fun; otherwise, it tends to be leaden. And Michael Sheen, as William Masters, really needs to complain to Michael Sheen, a producer on the show—some of the angles used to film him really make him look like Pinocchio.

Tonight sees the season-ender of “Last Tango in Halifax” on PBS. I’m going to miss it terribly until its return. Last week was a pleasure from start to finish—among his other talents, Derek Jacobi is one terrific dancer. And for the first time in five episodes, Gillian actually laughed when she caught Alan and Celia jitterbugging. Among other things, Judith when sober, surprisingly has her head on straight, though when drunk remains a disaster; William is one great kid; Caroline and Kate have turned up the burners; and if you look up “loose cannon” in the dictionary, you’re sure to find John’s picture (By the way, was I the only viewer who yelled “Gillian, for the love of God, don’t!” when she drunkenly inched her hand up John’s thigh? Robbie, newly human, is by far the better bet). I’m already looking forward to next year.

Posted in Television

Charmer

last-tango-in-halifax-48320

Did you ever give up on a TV show because you finally realized you just didn’t like spending time with the characters? Then tune into PBS for the most human—and humane—series to grace the tube in quite a while: the BBC import, “Last Tango in Halifax” (check those local listings).

It’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen. You’re sure the characters will be acting a certain way, but instead, they’ll surprise you by doing a 180. When you hear the basic premise of the show, you may gag and think it’s all cutesy-poo. But you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s about some interesting and sometimes complicated people with particularly messy lives, though soap opera it isn’t. So without further ado (though with a program note for the Amurricans reading this: the “Halifax” we’re talking about is in West Yorkshire, not Canada):

Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid), both widowed and in their late 70’s, were teenaged sweethearts who lost touch when her family moved to Sheffield and her friend failed to deliver a crucial explanatory note to Alan. However, when Celia’s brainy grandson sets her up on Facebook, she links up with Alan once more, and the two arrange to meet in person. Their afternoon together has to be seen to be believed, and by the end of Episode 1, they’re engaged, much to the dismay of their respective adult daughters. But all this is mere prelude.

Alan’s daughter, Gillian (Nicola Walker) is a widow with a teenaged son. She runs a farm, but to make ends meet, works part-time at a local supermarket. She’s having an affair with Paul, a co-worker not much older than her son, who seems to specialize in kissing and telling. Then there’s Celia’s daughter, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), the head teacher at a rather prestigious school (Americans, think high school principal or prep school dean), who’s married with two teenaged sons. Her husband, who previously left her for another woman, now wants to return—he’s discovered his inamorata is a drunk. But there’s a slight wrinkle: while they were separated, Caroline started some spooning of her own with Kate, a young teacher at her school. I told you it wasn’t simple.

The writing on this show is superb. Sally Wainright, who created “Last Tango in Halifax” and wrote all six episodes now airing on PBS, does a heroic job of avoiding all clichés. Alan and Celia are neither the old folks from “Cocoon” pining for rejuvenation, nor any variety of old codger, lovable, irascible or otherwise, their joint purchase of a Lexus convertible notwithstanding. Charming? Absolutely. But always realistic, sometimes to a fault. Both have revealed the problems and dissatisfactions in their respective marriages: Celia’s husband constantly cheated on her, and Alan, while perhaps content during the intervening years, doesn’t really seemed to have loved his wife. You think “It’s so wonderful they’ve found each other again,” but cracks in the plaster are beginning to appear. This past week saw their political differences come to the fore (he’s an unabashed Labourite, she’s a Conservative though she “didn’t mind Tony Blair”). More to come, I’m sure.

The four leads are wonderful. I’ve been a fan of Derek Jacobi since “I Claudius,” and his Alan is such fun to watch. So far his best moment was a silent one—his awestruck, head-over-heels gaze at Celia over the breakfast table, the morning after. It’s hard to believe that Anne Reid is the same actress who played Mrs. Thackeray, the cook in the “Upstairs, Downstairs” sequel—talk about range. Her “TMI” moment with Caroline when she won’t stop nattering about having sex with Alan was priceless. And Nicola Walker made me catch my breath when Gillian’s world seemed to be caving in, what with her son leaving home over her affair with Paul, only to learn that he’s moved in with her “right bastard” brother-in-law, a cop who thinks she murdered her late husband (false).

Top honors, though, have to go to Sarah Lancashire as Caroline. Hers is the most complex character, and the most pleasantly surprising. She’s got a look that kills: check out her expression when she comes home from work only to find her lay-about husband flaked out on the sofa, drunk, not having lifted a finger to start dinner. I howled at her decimation of Kate’s confidante and fellow teacher, who attempts to blackmail Caroline over that relationship (“Sod off you little prick! Don’t you know it’s 2012? The ladies have landed!”). And her heartbreaking confession to Kate about how growing up in the midst of her parents’ loveless relationship rendered her so ill-equipped to be a friend, let alone something more.

There are three more episodes of “Last Tango in Halifax” set to air on PBS in the coming weeks, and I intend to soak up every one. The good news is that there’s a Season Two now filming in the UK, which should come our way next year. Can’t wait.