Comedy writers do like a challenge, don’t they? Especially lately, with their “Let’s find the laughs in suicidal ideation” (Aisling Bea’s This Way Up) or “Examining the return to normality after serving 18 years for murder, but with lols” (Daisy Haggard’s Back to Life). Haggard, of course, also stars in Breeders, a similar comedy cliff-face, a brutally honest, brutally funny study of what real parenthood, the kind shorn of sentimentality, looks like. And yet, somehow, they surmount it. All of the above are bold, shining little nuggets of gold, alchemised from what, to the rest of us, looks like lead.
Now it is the turn of Andy Wolton, whose show Trying – the 23rd original show from Apple TV+ and the company’s first European production – is a comedy about adoption in the wake of a couple’s infertility. Obviously – obviously – individual viewer’s mileages will vary with this even more than with most comedies, depending on how close to home it strikes and how raw or painful any personal experiences still are. But it seems to me that Wolton – an adoptee himself, who made a pilot a few years back about a family of adopted children called The Coopers vs The Rest – treats the subject with compassion. As is so often the case, the opening episode isn’t its best – there is an over-reliance on the traditional dramatic tropes of the childless couple (making awkward jokes about fontanelles to new mothers and so on), but it quickly finds its feet. The couple’s situation isn’t exploited for laughs – the absurdities inherent in it are explored, which is different.
Call centre operator Nikki (Esther Smith) and Tefl teacher Jason (Rafe Spall) are in their 30s, very much aware that the people in the bars they used to frequent unthinkingly are now all 10 years younger than them. They have been trying for a baby long enough to have exhausted their NHS IVF cycles but have enough hope left to partake of emergency shags on public transport when they realise this month’s ovulation window is about to close. Then they find out that because of “complications” – ages, durations and medical details are all wisely kept vague – a baby of their biological own will never be possible. “Let me get you another leaflet,” says the doctor.
So, amid the endless round of pregnancy announcements and christenings that characterise your mid-30s as surely as weddings do the decade before and STIs do the decade before that, they begin to consider adoption. Can they, should they? When they haven’t even got the lampshades up in every room yet? They retreat, then talk themselves and each other round again, with truths both tongue in cheek (“We’ve only got to be better than the previous parents”) and bitter (“We waited till we were ready once before, didn’t we? And we were far too late”).
Once they have decided, finally, in favour, the profound, dizzying unnaturalness of having to codify and commodify yourself into a potential parent via forms and questionnaires instead of simply having sex and a baby quickly engulfs them. In the second episode, they realise that ex-partners will be approached for what are, in effect, references and Jason must arrange a meeting with Jane (Cush Jumbo), the woman he was with before Nikki.
In fact, not entirely before Nikki, which makes things awkward. But in the first of many mini-plotlines that will turn from comedy to tragedy and back again, it is not the memory of his infidelity that ends up hurting Jane most but the realisation that Jason has become “the man you hated me for telling you you could be … You’re a better man because you practised on me.” It’s a scene that has been done before, but I have never seen it done less hysterically or given so much time to breathe.
And even more rarely – for myriad reasons – have I seen what happens next. Jason is allowed the right of reply. “It wasn’t my intention,” he says. “It’s just … life.” The adoption content is the flesh, but it is moments such as these, relatable surely in one way or another for any member of the human race, that provide the skeleton. The genuinely loving, intimate banter between Nikki and Jason in their quieter moments too is one of the series’ greatest strengths.
All this and Imelda Staunton as their social worker Penny still to come. It’s well worth trying.