Comparisons with Sharon Horgan’s Catastrophe are inevitable – possibly statutory at this point – so let’s get them out of the way. The writer and star of Channel 4’s This Way Up, Aisling Bea, is Irish (obviously, if she were English, we would be going down the Fleabag route as part of the Commissioning-Criticism Axis Act 2019, which dictates that “female” is a genre). She is also friends with Horgan, and her new six-part series – Bea’s first foray into scriptwriting outside of her successful stand-up career – is produced by Horgan’s company Merman and has Horgan cast as Bea’s older sister Shona. It also shares the scabrous subversion of Horgan’s best work and makes you laugh and flinch in the same perfect proportions.
A more apt comparison, however, would be with Daisy Haggard and Laura Solon’s magnificent BBC series Back to Life from earlier this year, a hilarious, heart-breaking tale of a thirtysomething woman trying to rebuild her life after a long prison sentence. This Way Up is painted in slightly broader strokes but has the same truthfulness, the same fearlessness, the same ability to embrace laughter and despair and know that they can be pretty much one and the same thing.
Bea plays Aine, whom we first meet being signed out of the rehab facility where she has been staying after “a teeny little nervous breakdown”. She takes a job teaching English to foreign language students (“Get those worksheets in by Monday or I *will* Brexit the lot of you”), who, apart from sister Shona, form her one point of meaningful contact with the world as she tries to rediscover her place in it.
Every relationship – or lack thereof – is beautifully drawn, from the abortive stab at sex with recently discharged fellow patient Tom (EastEnders’ Ricky Grover, effortlessly lobbing in another superb performance and further deepening the mystery as to why he is not in everything, always) to the touching bond that grows, nurtured by sarcasm, between Aine and her new 12-year-old student Etienne and his emotionally repressed father Richard (Tobias Menzies, not yet at full stretch but, God willing, there will be a second series and we will get to see where he and Bea can take their not-quite thing).
It is a drama (it is only a comedy-drama if you are one of those lucky people who has never experienced the eternal truth and saving grace of real life – that the worse things get, the better the jokes become; you can’t separate them by so much as a hyphen) about loneliness and the lack of connection in the world. The heroine of Back to Life had this imposed upon her by external forces as people shunned her for her past – in This Way Up, although Aine experiences her share of people’s unkind reactions to her rehab stay, it is a more internal conflict that isolates her. Whatever the reasons, the demons that drove her to break down are not yet banished – something that we are aware of even before her quiet bathroom collapse in panic and grief towards the end of the first episode makes it brutally, wrenchingly apparent.
The first episode, by the way, is – in relative terms only – the weakest. If by the end of it you are undecided as to whether to continue, please do (the series is available in its entirety on All4, while being shown once a week on the main channel). In the second episode, it truly begins to take off and by the end, it is soaring. Bea’s uncompromising character and performance become something to love as well as admire. The gradual fleshing out of Shona, her boyfriend Vish (who wants Shona to move in with him, which she would if it were not for the fact that the idea fills her with horror AND she has just bought a new coffee table for her place) and her new business partner Charlotte (Indira Varma) become ever more rewarding; and greater, sadder, funnier pasts and truths are gradually excavated.
The ripple effects of the state of Aine’s mental health are shown, primarily on Shona. The sisters’ relationship is one of the show’s most consistent joys, featuring conversations that switch between huge, bleak subjects and the mundane, before dissolving into considerations of dogs on the internet who look like Nicolas Cage, and bitter rows that can be ended by waffles popping out of the toaster and breaking the mood.
It is part and parcel of a series as fiercely realistic as it is funny as it is … well, everything, really. If a second series isn’t commissioned, I’ll Brexit the lot of you.