In the first season of the BBC’s lockdown series Staged, the broadcaster pulled off a difficult feat: a comedy that still recognized the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The recurring subplot about Michael Sheen’s elderly neighbor ultimately became the heart of the first season (and was missed in the second). The laughs from the show were, in a way, a sort of Trojan horse for the darker moments.
Broadcaster’s new single film Together, starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan as a couple locked out, is also billed as a “dramatic comedy.” But in this case, the moments of darkness are tackled head-on.
There is no need for a Trojan horse here; although perhaps the cast of comedic actress Horgan could be considered as such, as she delivers one of the most devastating on-camera monologues I’ve ever watched. (Where was she when the BBC broadcast Alan Bennett’s recent Talking Heads?)
The “comedy” and “drama” aspects not only carry the same weight, but seem to actively irritate and rub against each other. In another scene, McAvoy’s character tells the viewer debauchery jokes, while Horgan’s character separately attempts to have a serious conversation with us. It’s like watching a TV comedy and a drama simultaneously, until the overlapping monologues end up clashing.
The marriage of two opposing tones and genres is reflected in the relationship of the central couple: tThe unnamed couple (“She” and “He”) are themselves completely opposite.
“She” is a condescending charity worker with a socialist upbringing, while “He” is a conservative business owner who flaunts his money and cruelly berates supermarket workers. Their conversation and the show bounce off the highest heights of sharp, witty comedy, before lighting up and grappling with the lows of the lows. Everything is taken to the extreme.
Looking straight into the camera, “She” and “He” both freely admit that they hate each other. They hate each other, can’t stand the idea of sex. Sharon Horgan’s character memorably compares “He” to “diarrhea in a pint glass.” They are wild, choosing each other’s character properly. There is no trivial conversation between them, only the hilarious or the heartbreaking.
The unmarried couple had previously only stayed together for the sake of their son (a “curious and inquisitive child” who, rather too conveniently for the show, is an introvert who barely makes noise – another extreme, but who disturbs). Now the couple are trapped in the same suburban home and unable to look away from their failing relationship.
“She” and “He” are not like any couple you know; and yet they are all a couple. And I think that’s the point. The show distills a year of argument and introspection in an hour and a half. The couple is never named, neither their hometown or their city. The show’s creators wanted these conversations to take place anywhere.
The show also distills and traces the pandemic and the national lockdown. We’ve got the ubiquitous toilet paper multipacks, hand-painted rainbows, and Clap for Carers references.
Ensemble is also not backing down from more recent aspects of the pandemic, seriously addressing how some members of the public have been. falsely claiming to be key workers in order to line up and get vaccines. (The verdict of the film? The act is “murky” at best, morally bankrupt at worst.)
Ensemble is brave and brilliant, and in one segment succinctly explains the government’s late response to the pandemic (and one aspect in particular) in less than two minutes. The movie will make you angry. But as “He” asks, how much of this anger will dissipate after the pandemic? And how much, if at all, will it really change?
Ensemble will be broadcast on Thursday June 17th on BBC Two. In the meantime, take a look at our others Drama cover, or find out what’s up with our TV guide.