A comedy drama about a middle-aged couple splitting up may not seem like the most natural fit for primetime telly. Author David Nicholls, who adapted his novel Us for BBC One, told press including RadioTimes.com that it can be “frightening” to do a TV series so narrowly focused on one, small, family unit.
But then lockdown happened, and divorce rates spiked around the world. There were reports of a 40 per cent rise, and a corresponding boom for property markets as couples entered lockdown as a single household, and emerged as two.
Suddenly the real-life, difficult conversations being held across the country paralleled the announcement made by Connie Peterson (Saskia Reeves) in the middle of the night, right at the start of Us episode one.
“I need to say something,” she tells her biochemist husband Douglas (Tom Hollander), lying in bed next to her. “I’ve been thinking about leaving. I think our marriage might be over.”
The writing seems to be on the wall for Douglas, who hopefully suggests a trial separation, to which Connie gently replies, “Except… not a trial.”
But all is not lost, as Connie – rather selfishly, perhaps – is still hellbent on their planned family holiday, a once-in-a-lifetime grand tour around Europe with their teenage son Albie (Doctor Foster’s Tom Taylor), so Douglas resolves to win her back while they’re abroad.
And herein lies the second, prescient aspect of the show. Filmed pre-lockdown, the four-part series jaunts – or in Douglas’ case, stumbles – around Europe. Even for those who chanced a holiday on the other side of the English Channel, the Petersons’ epic journey (essentially inter-railing for grown-ups) still wouldn’t be possible for viewers at the moment.
But while watching another family dawdling in the Louvre might sound grating on paper, in reality it feels like a holiday-from-home – or in Douglas’ case, a visual dos and don’ts for travellers. In fact, perhaps it’s a reminder of everything we’re not missing out on while sat on our sofas…
Poor Douglas. Although he is, quite frequently, intensely irritating (and even more so in the novel), in Tom Hollander’s hands I couldn’t help but warm to the character. Douglas tries, he really does. He tries to “change her mind”, as he hopefully writes on his computer before the holiday. He tries to connect with Albie, who is artistic and just like Connie (so, the complete opposite of Douglas). He tries to “stay in the moment,” which goes against every instinct for Douglas, a man who wears spotless chinos and religiously makes to-do lists (and no doubt colour codes them).
But Douglas always self-sabotages his plans, despite his best intentions. There was a great bit of foreshadowing after Connie asks for a divorce, when they finally decide to get some sleep – and are woken by an obscenely early food delivery that was booked, of course, by Douglas (“Why do you always do this?”/ “If I’d known you were leaving me I’d have pushed it to nine”).
It’s a Sunday morning, and Douglas later heads to his “fortress of solitude” – the local dump. In a slow motion montage, he weeps in his parked car as choral music plays, while men outside brusquely dispose of their white goods.
Later during the episode, over a hotel breakfast in Paris, Douglas has another (admittedly amusing) breakdown, when Kat (Thaddea Graham) – an overly-confident young busker Albie met the previous day – helps herself to a month’s supply of breakfast buffet treats, stuffing her pockets with pastries and mini pots of French jam. You can see Douglas fighting the urge to tell her off – as I’ve said, he tries his best – but an amused Kat pushes him until breaking point.
Flashbacks interspersed throughout this first episode show that Younger Douglas (Iain De Caestecker) had a similar issue; we see him awkwardly ranting during his sister’s otherwise jolly dinner party, where he meets Younger Connie (Gina Bramhill) on the rebound.
Cringeworthy moments are his forte, as shown most conclusively in Hollander’s present-day version.
When things get too embarrassing to watch (for both the Petersons and viewers), there’s always the scenery: the view from the (real-life) Eurostar window; midnight strolls along the Seine; art galleries and museums.
But the real centrepiece of this tale isn’t the Louvre, or the Eiffel Tower: it’s the unravelling marriage between two mismatched people who both, one feels, always knew deep down that it would come to this.
Us aired in the UK in September/October 2020 on BBC One, and starts on PBS Masterpiece in the US on Sunday 20th June 2021 at 9/8c, with episodes airing weekly.
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This article was originally published in the UK on 17 September 2020.