Jonathan (played by Romesh Ranganathan) is a beta male. Or, if you want to be more polite, an everyman. We can’t call him the hero of Ranganathan’s new six-part comedy series, Avoidance (BBC One), co-written with Benjamin Green, because that would be a contradiction in terms. But he is its protagonist and it is he who must find a new way of doing, living and being when his partner Claire (Jessica Knappett), driven to breaking point by his eternal inertia, finally throws him out.
It is a triumph of characterisation and writing that by the end of the opening minutes – during which Claire repeatedly insists, in a conversation they have clearly had before, that she and Jonathan must separate and he must leave – you are firmly on her side. “It. Is. Over,” she says. “I get it. I get it,” says Jonathan at last. Then, in a masterpiece of passive resistance that would see a lesser woman kill, “Let’s see how we feel after the dust settles.”
“You just kind of fall through life,” his sister Danielle (Mandeep Dhillon), who loves him deeply, tells him. “You must realise how impossible you are to live with.” Her wife, Courtney (Lisa McGrillis), has openly despised him for years and would gladly help him along this path to self-knowledge. Given that he has now come to live with them, she probably will, too.
Claire and Jonathan have an adored son, Spencer (played with rare talent by youngster Kieran Logendra), and the show lingers on the pain and loss involved in breaking up a family, evoking the emotional hinterlands for the boy especially before turning back to the comedy groove.
It is for Spencer and his happiness that Jonathan tries to shake off his torpor. The episodes are generally made up of incidents in which Jonathan is embarrassed either by his uselessness or by his cack-handed attempts to take control of a situation, be it “kidnapping” Spencer for a last day at the beach, or trying to help him get in with the cool kids. They end with some inching progress towards enlightenment, but the underlying question that drives this quiet, gentle, beautifully performed show is how much we can change our fundamental natures.
For those of us who identify with Jonathan – and they will include introverts, inveterate people-pleasers and of course beta females – the portrait of his blend of inability and lack of desire to engage with others on the terms they expect is painful in its accuracy. To watch him try to articulate his feelings under pressure, to manage his anger when this strange emotion does well up in him, to parse the difference between being assertive and aggressive when neither comes naturally, or simply to step up to where he needs to be – to watch all this is to feel seen in the worst and possibly most valuable way. Not that we’ll tell anyone, of course.
It is another comedy that, like Daisy Haggard’s Back to Life, Aisling Bea’s This Way Up or Daisy May and Charlie Cooper’s This Country, has you reaching for the word “bittersweet” but realising that in fact you need something stronger to encompass all the sorrow swelling beneath the laughs. Avoidance doesn’t have quite the subtlety or complexity of those exceptional series (yet?), but it is delicate, funny and truthful. Although I generally try to avoid anything that makes me feel, I shall stay for this until the bittersweet-and-more end.