When I first became a parent, a friend cut through all the cooing and celebration and asked a clever question: what was the scariest thing about it? It took me a minute to find the answer: you can’t undo it. You can never undo it. Mortgages and marriages and other things that seem permanent are, in fact, easily dismantled, but once you are a kid’s parent, that’s it. It’s a life sentence.
Most parents don’t want to be freed, because they love their child so completely that returning to a world without them feels absurd. There She Goes, however, is a comedy about people who have longed for a reset button. Emily (Jessica Hynes) and Simon (David Tennant) have a learning-disabled daughter, Rosie (Miley Locke), who is non-verbal and exhibits extremely challenging behaviour due to a chromosomal disorder. Every day is a nightmare of torn books, smashed possessions, smeared food and scratched skin, to a soundtrack of grinding screeches where the girl’s words should be. With the regular joys of parenting out of reach, the show and its characters have had to fight to find their own.
There She Goes runs on two timelines. In the earlier one, Rosie is a baby/toddler, and the shock of knowing that their lives will always now be difficult has pushed Em and Si into deep lows. While she grieved for the daughter she expected to have and doubted she could love Rosie instead, he submerged himself in raging self-pity and wine, both of them breaking the taboo of wishing their child were different. Writers Sarah Crawford and Shaun Pye, basing Em and Si on themselves, have been unstinting in showing us their own frailties, in the process reaching out to take the hands not just of parents of disabled children, but of any mother who worries she won’t bond with her baby, and any father who fears he is not emotionally equipped for the job.
By the end of season two, the flashback versions of Em and Si had put coping mechanisms in place and had begun to find fulfilment in their task, but the journey to get there would have been unbearable without the main timeline, a decade on, where the family are as settled as they can be. There, the series is something like a traditional family sitcom in which birthday parties, holidays and trips to the park or swimming pool have all inevitably gone awry, Simon forever undercutting the struggle with wicked jokes at Rosie’s expense: “She’s half Rain Man. She can throw a box of matches on the ground. She just can’t count them.”
Now they are back for a one-off special that has an air of finality. The older Rosie is 13 and is trickier than ever to wrestle with when out and about, to the point that the family is visited by a police officer investigating a report of a child abduction. Si enjoys winding up the copper: “You’d have to be insane trying to kidnap her. Five minutes of that noise, you’d chop your own ears off.”
There She Goes is more than a show trying to be funny about a hard situation; it is a show about funny people who wouldn’t survive their situation if they couldn’t wisecrack their way through it. One of countless lovely touches is the way it never forgets who Em and Si used to be: the new episode has Rosie surging into puberty, which prompts the series’ most disturbing scene yet, but also makes Em wonder whether Rosie – grumpy, inert, no friends – is a goth and should have a poster of Wayne Hussey from the Mission above her bed. Si gets the reference.
In the flashbacks, Emily has gained enough equilibrium to think the unthinkable and suggest trying for another baby. Previously, the twin timelines have worked to reassure us: we know the family won’t disintegrate because we know their future selves. Now that is flipped, since we know Em will not get her wish, so the story acquires yet another layer of sadness and regret, worked through and overcome. Bittersweet doesn’t really cover it.
In the present, however, a happy ending is in sight. Moments of closure are granted to the supporting cast’s many minor heroes, as a series that has made us burst suddenly into tears several times, always at people unexpectedly revealing the depth of their kindness, does so again. A scene playing on one of Em and Si’s perpetual miseries – being judged by strangers – brilliantly contrives a way to allow them something like that moment all parents crave, when they can relax and enjoy a job well done.
The last ever scene, if that is what it is to be, is supremely cathartic if you have worked out exactly what you are seeing, and still beautiful if you haven’t. Bringing up Rosie has been agony; we wouldn’t change any of it.
• There She Goes aired on BBC Two and is available on BBC iPlayer