Dreamland review: Lily Allen's seaside sitcom shines after rocky start
This comedy-drama is worth sticking with until the end.
First impressions are important – and regrettably, Dreamland doesn't make a great one. In just the first five minutes, the show hits us with an inflatable penis, a stifled orgasm and a lame joke about s**tting out your initials.
Not to be prudish, but it did evoke a traumatised flashback to last year's Rosie Molloy Gives Up Everything; a fellow Sky comedy that seemed to pride itself on saying or doing the most vulgar thing at any given time.
But where that misjudged offering swiftly capsized, sinking to ever greater depths, Dreamland weathers its stormy start to sail smoothly into a highly compelling second half.
The seaside sitcom stars pop icon Lily Allen as Mel O'Sullivan, who heads back to her hometown of Margate after a glamorous job in Paris goes awry. There she reunites with her mother, grandmother and three sisters, although eldest Trish (Freema Agyeman) is less than thrilled by the sudden reappearance.
Having relied on each other completely in the absence of any male parental figure, there is a profound bond between the women in this family that has been tested before by Mel's stunts – and is put at risk once again by a shocking secret that she brings home.
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Though Trish blasts her younger sister with the comment that "being a hot mess is very 2019", Dreamland wisely isn't attempting to impersonate Fleabag.
Allen excels in her television debut with an arguably more grounded performance, strengthening her case for more acting work following a successful run on the West End's 2:22 A Ghost Story (which might have been undermined by the production's later tendency to stunt cast).
The agonising scenario that Mel finds herself in is a key source of tension throughout the series, but it isn't the only compelling thread to watch out for. Trish and husband Spence (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) are expecting a baby, but the trauma of three miscarriages weighs heavily on their relationship.
Dreamland also doesn't shy away from discussing race, including the inferior healthcare often suffered by Black women and the psychological impact of being raised in a predominantly white town.
Agyeman is another victim of the wobbly series premiere, which sees her character stage an entirely pink party with the goal of "manifesting" a female baby. But from that heightened introduction emerges a well-rounded and believable character, whose marriage becomes a focal point of the series.
For Smith-Bynoe, this is an opportunity to flex more dramatic muscles than we see on his BBC sitcom Ghosts, and he rises to the occasion – only getting stronger as the season progresses.
Though her initial riff on After Life's cynical local journalist shtick raises a red flag, co-star (and writer) Gabby Best later comes into her own as straight-talking O'Sullivan sister Clare.
Youngest sibling Leila (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) is a charming – if somewhat daft – addition, whose dalliance with an awkward London boy is perhaps the most disposable subplot. But even that raises a valid issue around small towns being preyed upon by high-earners from distant cities.
Frances Barber gives an affecting turn as mother Cheryl, whose own love life sparks with the arrival of someone new, which addresses the private hell of being closeted in middle-age; it's a heartbreaking bind, sensitively written and performed alongside co-star Martina Laird.
Barber also has great moments with Samantha Bond and Sheila Reid, who play estranged sister Orla and O'Sullivan family matriarch Maureen, respectively.
While these pieces require some clunky assembly in the first two episodes, they ultimately form a surprisingly deep and well-realised story that leans more drama than comedy by the devastating finale; it's only fitting that a series named after a theme park should be an emotional rollercoaster.
Another season of Dreamland is strongly teased and thoroughly deserved, with every chance it could soar to even greater heights.