What do we come to British comedy for if not to be wholly charmed by tales of suburban doomsday cults? It’s so perfect a setup that I am surprised it didn’t become a staple of the genre long before Dillon Mapletoft and Oliver Taylor’s venture, Everyone Else Burns (Channel 4), came along.
But if historically someone has been slacking, this new comedy is worth the wait. Simon Bird – youthful star of The Inbetweeners and Friday Night Dinner, now disconcertingly all grown up – is David, the fanatical head of a family who are members of an evangelical, doomsday-awaiting sect, the Order of the Divine Rod. We meet him rousing his wife and children in the middle of the night to gather their prepper bags and hike out of the city because the apocalypse is imminent.
His son, Aaron (Harry Connor), is delighted – “Finally!” – while his daughter, Rachel (Amy James-Kelly), is terrified; Fiona (Kate O’Flynn), his wife, is stoic. It turns out to be a test, but you do what you have to do when you are a Christian patriarch bent on securing your loved ones’ places in heaven and on being promoted to church elder over your rival, the smug but popular Andrew (Kadiff Kirwan).
The jokes come thick, fast and funny. Some take aim at targets you might expect when your premise centres on a religious cult: another family is shunned for “drug dealing”, which soft-hearted Rachel thinks is harsh, but “they knew what they were doing when they opened that cafe,” Fiona tells her firmly. Others venture into more bizarre, yet still logical, territory. There is a running gag involving David’s proficiency at the sorting office where he works, specifically his ability to weigh parcels by hand and lob them unseeing over his shoulder into exactly the right basket – the world’s most perfectly suburban God-given gift.
Another running gag is Aaron’s artwork – mostly violent depictions of his father suffering in the afterlife – as the boy attempts to work through his rage at being cheated of the apocalypse he was promised. “The suburbs should be a crater by now!”
The heart of the show, however, pumping life into its veins and giving us some more relatable people to root for, is the women. Fiona is doing her best to be the faithful and obedient wife that David and the Order demand, but you can see it is an increasing struggle.
She longs for a new television to replace the one David poured a jug of water over and, against all teachings, she begins to assert her independence by starting up her own business, with the help of her magnificent secular neighbour, Melissa (the magnificent Morgana Robinson). “But the Bible says women will be fulfilled by making the home their work,” an uncertain Fiona says. “And have you, personally, found that?” enquires Melissa. “No,” says Fiona. “But I’ve only been doing it 17 years.” “I’d ask more,” says her friend, “but I don’t want to be sad.”
Rachel is the epitome of a painfully uncool teenager, alienated from her peers by her plain clothes, lack of phone and inability to go out unless it is to knock on doors to proselytise. Her growing friendship with a former Order member called Joshua (Ali Khan) – he even smuggles her a phone – is genuinely touching and, I fear, may break my heart at some point.
On top of denying her a social life, her parents also intend to stop Rachel going to university. They condemn her for getting good grades – a clear sign that she has been spending time revising instead of spreading God’s word. Her teacher, Miss Simmonds (Lolly Adefope, still not being given enough to do, but hitting what she is given out of the park every time), encourages Rachel not to abandon her efforts. “I’ve got a lot of goodwill riding on this. And actual money.” Although, unfortunately, “my local betting shop has banned me online and in person”.
The hyper-religiosity is used to look anew at family dynamics and dysfunction; how blind you can be to abnormalities if they are all you know; and the need to break free. Mapletoft and Taylor do this without mocking faith itself. David’s unwitting hypocrisy and unshakeable selfishness (pushing a mother and her sick baby behind him in the Elders’ advice queue) are the butt of the jokes; the extremity and perversion of Christianity by the Order is what they have in their sights. Beyond that, it’s simply very, very funny, all the way. I’m a convert.