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'Vicious' recap: Season 1 launches on PBS

Season 1 | Episode 1 | Aired June 29, 2014

It’s astonishing to watch two knighted legends of film and stage bicker in bathrobes.

But here we are, in a three-part story arc with sitcom lighting, watching Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi trade barbs as grumpy gay partners of 48 years.

McKellen plays Freddie Thornhill, an egocentric thespian who turned the couple’s flat into his own house of mirrors, with shelves of awards and playbills framed on the walls. Far below the stratosphere of McKellen’s own career, we know Freddie appeared in one whole episode of Doctor Who (which McKellen, in fact, also did) and once in The Mousetrap.

Derek Jacobi as Stuart and Ian McKellen as Freddie.

Derek Jacobi as Stuart and Ian McKellen as Freddie

But so far, we know Freddie’s theatrical talents are best utilized to send his sensitive partner, Stuart Bixby (Jacobi), sobbing from the room whenever he can.

The first episode of Vicious is bookended by phone calls from Stuart’s mother, who, after nearly half a century, still doesn’t know Freddie and Stuart are partners.

“I’m waiting for the right time,” Stuart says, in defense.

In the first episode of this six-episode first season, Freddie and Stuart gain a hunky new neighbor named Ash (Iwan Theon, playing an epic role reversal from the savage sadist Ramsay Snow-now-Bolton on Game of Thrones).

Freddie and their hot-to-trot friend, Violet, spend much of the episode prodding Ash to reveal his sexual preferences.

Frances de la Tour as Violet and Iwan Rheon Ash.

Frances de la Tour as Violet and Iwan Rheon as Ash

Violet (Frances de la Tour) is a riot in her attempts to connect with the strapping, leather-jacketed Ash. She shamelessly name-drops Zac Efron, though she’s not entirely sure if that’s an American person or a place (“Have you ever been to Zac Efron?”).

Meanwhile, Ash’s young presence reveals all the quirks of Freddie and Stuart’s life at home. They hate interruptions of any kind, including but not limited to phone calls, door bells, sunlight and the frequent deaths of close friends.

When their old friend Clive dies, the couple holds a wake, which Freddie uses as an opportunity to regale their uninterested circle of friends with stories of Clive’s unrequited love for Freddie, which turns out to be Clive’s unrequited love for Stuart.

Stuart latches on to this newfound news, imagining an alternate timeline for his life.

“I could have been happy and successful instead of being stuck with you in this penitentiary,” Stuart tells Freddie, clucking every consonant.

“I don’t know what would be more preferable — if you woke up dead or if I did,” Freddie retorts.

Vicious insults fire nonstop in the first episode, which I’m convinced could not have been picked up in the U.S. had it not been for the legendary status and popularity of the stars.

“Some of my friends think it’s a bit beneath my dignity, but I don’t have any dignity as an actor,” said Ian McKellen in an interview with EW.com’s Lanford Beard. “I like doing a variety of things—way-out or traditional doesn’t matter to me, as long as the material is good.”

Created by American TV writer/producer Gary Janetti (Will & Grace, Family Guy) and British writer/producer Mark Ravenhill, Vicious comes across as a playground for high-caliber actors to just have some fun.

Frances de la Tour as Violet, Iwan Rheon as Ash and Ian McKellen as Freddie.

Frances de la Tour as Violet, Iwan Rheon as Ash and Ian McKellen as Freddie.

Though it debuted on Britain’s ITC TV, Vicious plays with pop culture in a way that delights both sides of the pond, at least for any PBS watcher familiar with Miss Marple and the Earl of Grantham.

It’s the opposite of another British sitcom picked up by PBS, Keeping Up Appearances, which banked on the lengths one woman would go to show the world her marriage and home life are perfect, with disastrous, hilarious results.

In Vicious, contrastingly, Freddie and Stuart openly deride and humiliate each other, even more passionately when they have an audience.

“I never know when I go too far,” Freddie tells Violet. “But I’m always glad when I do.”


So am I. Keep going too far, Freddie.

We all know how this ends.


What did you think of Vicious?

Vicious airs Sundays at 10:30 on PBS.


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