The more shows like This Way Up emerge, the more the current TV business model of paying squillions of dollars to questionably credentialed hit-makers seems lamentable. For every overstuffed, ego-swaddling vanity project clogging up the airwaves, you could have 20 series like this one from the Irish comedian and writer Aisling Bea: small in scope, infinitely charming, and intermittently devastating. Instead of uniformly glossy Emmys bait, there could be more TV shows that try to answer vital questions, such as: What do you do when just being alive seems a touch too much to bear?
In This Way Up, which arrived on Hulu yesterday after airing on Britain’s Channel 4, Bea plays Aine, a teacher living in London who’s trying to recover from a “teeny little nervous breakdown.” The show has drawn instinctual comparisons to other imported melanchomedies; like Fleabag, it features a heroine who uses humor to keep everyone at a distance, and like Catastrophe, it captures a specific subset of British culture that often involves financial precarity and borderline alcoholism. (This Way Up also stars Sharon Horgan, Catastrophe’s co-creator, as Aine’s sister, Shona, and is produced by Horgan’s company, Merman.) But Bea’s voice as a writer is distinct, and Aine’s foibles and compulsions resist being lumped into a pile with other cheekily traumatized comic heroines. She’s all heart, suffering both from deeply rooted pain and from the state of everything around her.
In the first episode, Shona arrives to pick Aine up from the residential facility where she’s been staying for the past few weeks. “Is she fixed?” Shona asks the rehab director nervously, after Aine breaks down in the middle of a tirade about minibars and wanting to eat a Kit Kat occasionally without everyone gawping at her. Flash forward four months, and who can say? Aine is back at her job teaching English as a foreign language, using the Kardashians as an example to illustrate the vocabulary of family. She still shoplifts the odd smoothie, but dutifully recycles the container. She cheerily doles out fashion advice to Shona, but collapses in a heap in the bathroom after her sister leaves.
This Way Up is loosely plotted at best, meaning it relies on Bea’s charisma and presence as a star to keep viewers engaged. Luckily, she has both in abundance. Aine is impossible not to fall for—she’s a wicked comic, an unfailingly kind protagonist, and a bizarrely polite drunk. (“Sorry, sorry, I’m, sorry, just going to, sorry,” she slurs as she abandons a group of friends during a night out.) The series never quite digs into why she feels so alone, but it does offer a sense of how isolating her life can be. At work, the language barrier between Aine and her students makes it hard for them to forge meaningful connections—or sometimes even comprehensible ones. She clings to Shona like a drowning woman to an inflatable raft, but has layers of awkward jokes and anxiety to insulate her from everyone else.
Even so, the brightest moments in the show all come from Bea’s interactions with her stellar supporting cast. As Shona, Horgan gets to be gentler and nervier than her transcendently manic Catastrophe alter ego, worrying nonstop and constantly tracking her sister’s location via iPhone. Tobias Menzies (Outlander, The Crown) gets an understated, lovely role as a repressed single father who looks like he sprung from the womb “with a strong serious jawline and an opinion on Chekhov”; he’s completely thrown by Aine’s energy, even as their chemistry is undeniable. Game of Thrones’s Indira Varma is a gorgeously troublesome colleague of Shona’s. Sorcha Cusack pops up in one episode as Aine and Shona’s mother, a former television weather presenter with a disarmingly blunt manner and secrets of her own.
My favorite episode of all six is the one where Aine and Shona visit the family of Shona’s boyfriend (played by the former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi). Within 23 minutes, Bea subverts every trope of an awkward group lunch, adding impromptu singing interludes, cultural in-jokes, and an older man’s lament about Instagram. (“All the women always get so annoyed when I put pictures up without editing them. All they want is a Valencia filter and no smiling.”) Rather than predictably mining all the parental expectations placed on women and the toll they can take on relationships, Bea seems to end up concluding something different: that families can be flawed, and can still be everything.
What This Way Up should make clear, amid the inevitable comparisons to other Britcom hits, is that British TV is doing an infinitely better job of scouting distinct voices and talent than American TV is, for all its money and apparent thirst for content. Shows like this one don’t have to be perfect, or intricate, or awards-sweeping. Instead, it’s enough that This Way Up is distinct, funny, and thoughtful, leaving viewers with a portrait of someone whose deep empathy seems to make her too vulnerable for modern life. There aren’t many series that can marry this kind of openheartedness with such shrewd insight, and that alone makes Bea’s comedy an easy win of a watch.