In some ways, building a TV show around a couple to root for is a lot more difficult than setting up one doomed to fail. What makes “Trying,” the latest comedy in the greater Apple TV+ library, such a success is that it finds a way for any viewer to be invested in its central couple’s happiness while not being shut off from the fortifying ups and downs that make following them worth it.
Nikki (Esther Smith) and Jason (Rafe Spall) don’t claim to be extraordinary. She works at a rental car company call center and he teaches adult ESL classes. When their attempts to conceive a child of their own are unsuccessful, they both decide to take the next step and pursue adoption. Like most prospective parents, they quickly find themselves in over their heads, but through that realization are able to lean on each other.
There’s a kind of strength that comes from the simplicity of the premise. Balancing the future of their relationship with the growing list of obligations and anxieties that come with their choice to adopt ensures that “Trying” never loses sight of Nikki and Jason. The show really settles in when it focuses on the parts of their shared life that the adoption process spotlights. There’s the way that they interact with their friends’ kids, their respective struggles with less-understanding parents, and their individual nagging feelings that they’re not what each other really want from a partner.
Across the first few episodes, Jason and Nikki’s eagerness to welcome a kid into their relationship often comes across as short-sighted. (It’s not just them — an outsized number of characters in this show initially seem to think that the adoption process is like visiting a baby vending machine.) Once “Trying” feels like it’s on their level — not just observing them from above, but linking their pursuit of happiness to the show’s fortunes — that connection really pays off.
On the spectrum of recent parenting-adjacent British comedies, “Trying” isn’t nearly as acerbic as the recent FX series “Breeders.” It may not dig as deep as “Catastrophe” does into some of the more acute nuances of an “in this together” relationship, but the emotional home base that Nikki and Jason return to is marked by that same bit of genuine sweetness that can be the oasis at the end of a tricky ordeal. “Trying” isn’t afraid to let these two poke around at each other’s shortcomings, even when that stumbles on some tricky truths about how they see each other.
The opening episode has a few calculated moments of Nikki and Jason wrestling with the end of their attempts to conceive, but you can see how that small pain never truly leaves as the season goes on. Over time, the babies on the outer edge of the frame become less emphasized, and there’s still a tiny shift in the couple’s demeanor as they’re reminded of an experience that they won’t have themselves.
That tinge of melancholy doesn’t mean that the adoption process is one that’s full steam ahead. They each encounter patches of doubt, either brought on by their own anxieties or choices that they think the other has made. The moments it chooses for their strengths to come out are made all the more notable because of how it also shows this adoption process highlighting their relative failures, too.
The first four episodes of this opening season definitely have their charms — Jason’s meet-up with an ex to try to heal some open emotional wounds has some unexpected push-pull moments — the back half is really where “Trying” settles into a groove. As various applications and evaluations force Jason and Nikki to look at how they’re handling the process, it helps fill in some of the gaps around their characters.
It’s not just about how the two of them feel for each other, it’s how they respond to different crises big and small, what they emphasize when other people’s children or assorted work-related troubles rear their heads. There’s a simmering goofy energy in those first few episodes that writer Andy Wolton and director Jim O’Hanlon help crystallize into truer, more endearing doses of reality as more and more people judge whether or not Jason and Nikki are deemed suitable to add to their family.
It’s in those moments that the show’s cast seizes every opportunity within reach. As the couple’s agency guide through all the evaluation ordeals, Imelda Staunton is a gleeful hurricane of energy, alternating between welcome boisterous distraction and calm, smiling reassurance. Spall shades in the areas of Jason that in lesser hands would make him come across as a distant, uninterested slob.
The real anchor of “Trying” is Smith, who’s able to move between Nikki’s bouts of enthusiasm and second-guessing and insecurity without losing any of those threads. It would be easy for “Trying” to coast on relationship story shortcuts and dynamics. Smith and Spall ensure that these two characters aren’t together out of sheer convenience. By the end of the season, you can tell that Nikki and Jason may not be 100% ready for what comes next, but there’s a reason they both are willing to take on that uncertainty.
“Trying” is now available to stream on Apple TV+.