For those mourning the Fleabag shaped hole in their hearts, I hereby present to you: This Way Up. Season one of this Bafta-winning show begins with Aine (Aisling Bea, also its screenwriter) checking out of rehab after a “teeny weeny” nervous breakdown. “Is she, um … is she fixed?” Aine’s sister Shona (Sharon Horgan) asks the nurse before leaving. “It’s just, I didn’t really see this coming, so…” It is with this trepidation that we watch the next two seasons of the compellingly funny and chaotic This Way Up, wondering not only whether Aine is fixed, but just how close we all are to the things we don’t see coming.
Aine works as an ESL teacher and through her position we have an insight into immigration, the absurdity of the English language, Brexit and Love Island. It’s also how we come to meet Etienne, a young French boy she has been asked to tutor, and his father, Richard (Tobias Menzies).
The romantic subplot that plays out between Richard and Aine over the two seasons is highly charged, a kind of slow burn that has more depth (and more at stake) than the typical romcom trajectory we’re used to consuming in half hour snippets.
While much of the joy that This Way Up brings is due to the over-the-top situational humour and snappy dialogue (made precisely 7.5 times more joyous because of the Irish lilt) this is all counterbalanced by the subtle moments of restraint. We see Aine trying to hold back her disappointment after being uninvited to a party; her reaction is underplayed which makes her loneliness even more palpable.
It’s the dynamic between Shona and Aine that really drives this series, veering away from the tired saccharine depictions of sisterly love, and heading more towards the checking-for-haemorrhoids-with-an-iPhone-torch variety. Their performances are at once controlled and wildly uninhibited. (Their rendition of the Cranberries’ Zombie will make you smile long after the TV has been switched off. A true gift, honestly.) Shona may be billed as the Type A, fiercely overprotective and “together” one, but we are privy to her secrets and fully aware of her flaws. As viewers, we know the characters better than they know themselves, and it is this constant push-pull of the said and unsaid that makes this show compulsive viewing.
There is nothing two-dimensional in This Way Up, straddling the comedy, drama and coming-of-age genres (because we’re still coming of age in our 30s and 40s, right?). Characters are tautly drawn and complex, and our feelings towards them are equally as multifaceted. Mental illness is captured in all its nuanced glory; lonely, absurd and snort-out-loud funny. In this way, it’s reminiscent of author Meg Mason’s breakout novel Sorrow and Bliss, which managed the same kind of acerbic dialogue and sensitive handling of dark material while maintaining an utterly delightful and eccentric energy throughout.
It’s also beautifully layered, such as in one striking moment when a snippet of audio from a podcast coincides with a line of dialogue as Aine and her taxi driver pass the remains of the Grenfell Tower – just a moment, but telling and powerful. There is nothing clunky about its juxtapositions, because This Way Up is a show about contrasts. Addiction and infidelity and erectile dysfunction are handled with the same sensitivity and humour as mother-daughter relationships and skin hunger and fringes.
It is a treat to spend time with this cast. Their chemistry and obvious affection for each other (both as characters and as people) shines through. Cleverly crafted, gloriously silly and poignant in equal measure, this is a true comfort watch in every sense of the word.