Sometimes, something is so insane that the only way to properly capture its insanity is to put it in plain terms. So here goes: “Vicious” is a British multi-camera sitcom co-created by Gary Janetti, who was an executive producer on the NBC 1990s classic “Will & Grace.” It stars Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi as Freddie and Stuart, who have been a couple for 48 years, but a cranky and bitchy pair for that same length of time. (The show’s original title was “Vicious Old Queens.”) There are ongoing jokes about McKellen’s career as a relatively unsuccessful character actor who owns a tux because he stole it after doing a guest spot on “Downton Abbey” and that he holds the title of “10th Most Popular ‘Doctor Who’ Villain.” It was originally produced for the British network ITV, and is currently airing its second season in the United States on PBS.
That’s right — there have been TWO SEASONS of this sitcom, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi. Don’t believe that this actually exists? Here’s a trailer for Season 2:
The basic fact of this show’s existence is remarkable, which is only part of why watching the actual show becomes, essentially, an extreme example of cognitive dissonance. McKellen and Jacobi’s knighthoods come from decades of creating legendary roles for stage and screen, playing everything from supervillains to Shakespeare. They are icons, which is why it’s nothing short of bizarre to hear McKellen’s classically-trained voice snap out punchlines like, “Bitch, please.” (Yes. “Bitch, please.”) It’s not that the role is beneath him. It’s just something completely different from anything else you’ve ever seen him do.
Knowing about Janetti’s roots on “Will and Grace” is helpful here because “Vicious” operates in that sort of territory. “Unsubtle” is one word for it. “Camp” is another. McKellen and Jacobi sling lethal barbs at each other in every scene, the sort of bickering that sitcoms have trained us to interpret as loving, even as it borders on the sociopathic. You might wonder, idly, why these two men are still together for the same reason you might have kept waiting for “Married With Children” or “Everybody Loves Raymond” to wrap things up with a murder-suicide.
But instead, you get some moments with real heart, like the episode which aired this Sunday on PBS which ended with a huge moment for the two characters. After being together for 48 years, Freddie and Stuart got engaged. (Take that, Kim Davis.) The moment was actually a surprisingly emotional one, both well-acted and touching.
Because once you come to accept McKellen and Jacobi in a multi-camera format, there is a lot to respect about their performances; specifically, the way that those decades of classical training adapt themselves to the sitcom world. Much has been written before about how the tradition of the multi-cam, filmed in front of a studio audience, relates to theater, and McKellen and Jacobi know how to play to a live crowd.
And they’ve got some impressive back-up on their side. Theater legend Frances de la Tour plays their longtime friend Violet, whose tragic personal life and extreme sexual appetite give Freddie and Stuart another target for their barbs. And the role of the wacky neighbor comes in the form of a sweet but dim cutie-pie named Ash — who, in one of the weirdest twists of the series, is played by Iwan Rheon, maybe best known as Ramsey Snow on “Game of Thrones,” a.k.a. “the worst person on a show full of terrible people.” Anyone who saw the teens-with-superpowers lark “Misfists” knows that Rheon has remarkable range as an actor, but the leap from bumbling, well-meaning Ash to raping and castrating Ramsey is probably high enough to get you over Everest.
As fun as de la Tour and Rheon are, though, McKellen and Jacobi are the heart of the series, which is the first UK sitcom to feature a homosexual couple at its core. (Cute story: Apparently McKellen had a massive crush on Jacobi while they were at drama school together as lads. Jacobi never knew.) The campiness of the series might keep it from being a critical favorite, and the basic fact of its existence remains surreal. But it also, maybe, feels like a miracle.
“Vicious” Season 2 airs Sunday nights on PBS, and Season 1 can be streamed on Amazon Prime.