Half an hour in real time, in the house of a middle-aged couple (Dawn French and Alfred Molina) who have Just Got In from work. No scenes outside. No other characters. Few traditional “jokes”. Is that the recipe for an unmissable sitcom?
Plenty of people say no, it really isn’t. All comedies are divisive, but particularly Roger and Val Have Just Got In. Its critics reckon it’s stilted, it’s boring, its dialogue isn’t believable and it simply isn’t funny.
But comedy is character and these characters are exquisite. What writers Emma and Beth Kilcoyne have done is nail the peculiar rhythms and catchphrases of cohabitants. Those complaints about stagey, unrealistic dialogue overlook the fact that when couples are together even for a few years, they develop a weird argot all of their own.
Crucially, Roger and Val are the only people on screen, so they’ve got nobody to behave themselves in front of – and, more crucially, they have no children to barge in and pull them out of themselves. They’ve been dissecting each other’s days at work, and each other’s behaviour, every weekday evening for decades, uninterrupted and in tiny detail.
So what we get is a programme that brilliantly portrays the brittle symbiosis of marriage by magnifying and exaggerating the over-familiarity and the bickering, but also the constant warmth, support and concern of the long-term couple.
Individually, too, Roger and Val are utterly believable: flawed, confused and uniquely mad in the way that everyone on Earth is if you only get to know them well enough. Once you’re keyed into Roger’s uncertain bravado and Val’s mix of brusqueness and tenderness, almost everything this melancholy but sweetly supportive pair say can raise a low-key, warm titter. Nobody falls through a bar or does a crazy dance. No need.
The series isn’t content, however, with being a perfectly observed micro-comedy. As that melancholy took over during series one – which aired far too long ago, in the middle of 2010, but I can imagine it takes a lot of effort to write something that plays like nobody’s written it, and it just exists – Val and Roger’s charming vulnerability acquired a darker, more dramatic hue.
We learnt that they’re bound together not just by domestic convenience, but by grief. The searingly sad fourth episode, where the nature of that loss was revealed – they don’t have kids because their son died at five weeks – was the best half-hour of telly of 2010 in any genre.
Now we know their horrible secret, the chirpy focus on life’s smallest minutiae is explained, touchingly, so that we love them and root for them all the more. The way they find fascination in irrelevant things, and constantly egg each other on, is subtly loaded with emotion.
So it is as the show returns, with Roger and Val having just got in from a wedding. They argue about Roger having stunk out the hotel-room bathroom, debate what in the blazes has recently happened to Roger’s brother’s hair, and struggle to readjust to being at home: “I’m massively out of kilter. Are you?”
Welcome back, old friends. TV’s seemed a little bit harsh and cold without you, but it’s out of kilter no longer.