It’s quite rare that a TV show’s quality genuinely surprises me these days. Narrative twists can be fun, and shows like Mad Men and The Americans certainly impress in their willingness to challenge the audience thematically and break form. Surprise, though, is a different game. In the new age of television, I’ve come to expect a high level of quality and experimentation. So it was a huge delight when, this week, I mainlined a comedy series on Hulu that I’d never heard of before and found myself routinely surprised at its frankness and depth.
The show is called Rev., and it stars Tom Hollander as Reverend Adam Smallbone, a new Church of England vicar in the London inner-city, along with Olivia Coleman as his solicitor wife, Alex. Simon McBurney is the Archdeacon Robert, a constant presence around the church, St. Saviour of the Marshes, looking at Adam to increase the congregation and collect more revenue. Every episode follows a similar arc: Adam is confronted with a threat to the Church and/or his own ego, and must wrestle with solving the problem while maintaining a degree of dignity.
In truth, Rev. is a pretty standard brit-com. There’s no laugh track, but the situations and characters are largely familiar, if not outright rote. The comedy is also hit-or-miss. Though the lead actors are all excellent, they’re not always successful in adding extra layers of comedy to fairly standard tropes. Watching Adam fumble through situations is often amusing, but it lacks the sharp bite of the best British comedy.
It’s that comedic mediocrity which makes Rev.’s deeper underpinnings so surprising. Where most British comedies about priests generally rest on good nature and soft poking at cultural conservatism, Rev. walks right into the fray of cultural progress and divide. It presents a relatively progressive church, with an even more progressive reverend. It fully allows for that reverend’s humanity and flaws to breach the surface. It finds in religion a complex bunching of ideas with competing interests and values. Most of all, it reckons with all that complexity while never once dismissing it as folly.
That last bit is especially important given the understandable urge to paint religion in a negative light. Rev. is unafraid to call bullshit when and where it sees bullshit, but the show also understands the value in religion as an organizing force for good and a comfort in the face of difficult moral questions. It’s a guiding light in Adam’s life, and he struggles to help shine that light on others.
The series builds its depth gradually, waiting for the perfect moments to deliver a gut-punch or two. The first season of six episodes is very good, dealing with everything from theft to sex, but it’s not until the sixth episode that things get really heavy. Adam gets a bad review on a website and it creates in him an existential crisis of faith. But instead of Adam doubting his faith in religion, or his faith in Jesus, the crisis is over his faith in his own ability to do any good for the people around him. If he can’t reach the masses, what is the point of his being a priest at all? It’s a question played out dramatically over the course of thirty minutes, and it ends with a great amount of ambiguity.
Similarly, the fifth and sixth episodes of Season 2 deal with Adam and other characters’ relationships with the church and other people. Struggles in Adam’s marriage and other aspects of his personal life are driven to the fore while he searches for meaning in the world. In another episode of Season 2, a silly plot about Adam being jealous about the headmistress at the church’s school dating a man becomes, at the end, an extraordinary meditation on the power inherent in the idea of an afterlife.
For a pretty unassuming British sitcom that’s amusing at best to broach this subject matter is impressive. For it be so good at doing so is downright surprising. Into Seasons 2 and 3 I found myself tearing up regularly, overcome by the weight of what the characters were dealing with, and hoping with all my might that they find some solace in even the small amount of good they do. Episode after episode I was surprised by the series’ humanity and care, and its total lack of fear in confronting the everyday darkness of living in the modern world without ever losing hope. It’s downright beautiful.