Email Roundtable #57 – Last Tango in Halifax and 2020 TV

In this roundtable, Jane and Kerri attempt to discuss a show that maybe they didn’t like so much but they did watch this year, the BBC series Last Tango in Halifax.

Kerri: How the heck would you describe this show to someone?

Jane: Oh boy. Last Tango in Halifax is the melodrama of Celia and Alan. The couple reunite via facebook in their 70’s; fall back in love and join their daughters, daughters’ partners and grandchildren into one big dysfunctional family. Many, many little children come and go along the way. I’ve never experienced a show with so many little children stuffed into scenes.

Kerri: That’s a delightful description! The show is an ensemble and that ensemble does include, eventually, a number of babies. The series also focuses on the adult daughters that the two septuagenarian love-birds had with their former (now both dead) partners. Caroline and Gillian have their own complicated love-lives, job stress and teenage children to keep them busy and the drama coming. I think that one of the things the show does well is connect the families rather quickly, but also makes sure to keep them separated enough so that the separation itself can add to the drama. There is an awful lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication. In other words, they connect but they don’t all live together or anything.

Jane: Which character’s house would you most like to live in? 

Kerri: This question should be easy to answer. The correct answer should be Caroline’s first house. It’s gorgeous! That kitchen is spectacular! But, the more I think about it, the more it seems that there would be an awful lot to clean. Plus, John is likely living there, so that is in an automatic strike against it. Gillian’s cottage is cozy and I like the thought of napping with everyone on those couches in the living room, but is there a single light in the place? Plus, the Banksy on the barn was a fake! Judith’s modern house at the end of the series is stunning but cold. And, it has the John problem again. So, I’m going with Kate’s modest and classy dwelling from the early seasons. 

Jane: Is it the writers’ intention to make Celia more insufferable as the series progresses, or is it a flaw/inconsistency in the writing?

Kerri: I think Celia becomes more insufferable over time and I think this is intentional, but I don’t discount (and in fact agree with) the notion that the writing suffers later on in the series. I think part of what makes Celia so insufferable is the accumulation of her horrible, almost ludicrously selfish acts. Maybe part of this is the show exploring the idea that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but at certain points, it just registers as knowing and willful cruelty. And after it happens over and over again, it starts to get stale. It also begs the question, why do people (especially Alan) put up with it? I think that the show wants us to see Alan and Celia as rekindling some of the joy and excitement of their youth together but this, paired with her impulsive self-centredness, usually just makes me think she’s behaving like a jerky teenager. 

This brings up something else that I have been thinking about. The show’s first series are a decent binge. There are relatively few episodes and lots of ridiculous storylines. I enjoyed getting mindlessly swept away and frustrated by the trivial and sometimes life-altering dramas of the characters. There was something comforting in knowing that Celia would inevitably “stick her foot in it” each episode; that Caroline would walk down the hallway of her school like a fabulously-cardiganed superhero while taking a VERY IMPORTANT personal phone call during work hours; that Alan would be lovely and get flummoxed by something one of the “girls” had done; one of the boys would be doing their A-Levels; and that Gillian would spills the beans yet again and tell another person that she murdered her husband. I even liked that every episode would give me another reason to conclude that John is the worst. Because he really, really is. But at least he is consistent. There was something comforting about the silly repetition of it all and, this year, finding comfort in a TV show about two connected families full of messed up humans, doing the same messy things over and over again, well, it was kind of perfect.

But, I think there is a drop off in quality in the final series. Part of that, I think, is the limited time we get with the characters we have come to know/like. I imagine if I hadn’t binge-watched it (and actually watched it in the manner it aired, with four years between the fourth and most recent, fifth season) some of my good-will due to time apart would have buoyed me through an otherwise obnoxious subplot about a thieving (and possibly murderous or just irresponsible) street urchin. 

Which character grew on you most during the course of the series? The least? 

Jane: John grew on me the most. John begins as (and perhaps remains) a cheating opportunist who drifts through Caroline’s world as it suits him. John creates chaos wherever he goes without a care in the world.  What made my love for John grow is his resiliency. No matter how many messes he creates, he picks himself up and carries on with excitement for what comes next. John’s unshakeable positivity becomes irresistible and my favourite thing to watch.

Celia grew on me the least. Her relationship with Alan was fun and often touching in the early seasons but her selfishness (especially when it came to daughter Caroline) was hard to endure. There was never a hint of growth or consequence for her stunts. You could argue that she is no different from John, but at least John faced Caroline’s wrath which provided comedic release.

What is your favourite character pairing? It doesn’t have to be a romantic pairing. 

Kerri: I have two answers: 1.) Anyone plus Paul. Paul in the first season is the perfect addition to any scene with any other character if you want to add humour and someone (Paul) falling. 2.) Any scene between Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Gillian (Nicola Walker) is a delight because Lancashire and Walker are such solid, charming, slyly funny actors and Caroline and Gillian have an easy, if necessarily fraught, chemistry together. OK. Maybe I have three answers. Lawrence and Angus, because theirs is the purest love story on the show. 

I guess we’ve come to the elephant in the room: Is this show good? (I’m seriously not sure). Would you recommend this show to anyone? 

Jane: I don’t know. I think probably not. There are parts of the show that are fantastic. There are some touching relationship moments with Caroline and Gillan. As you mentioned this pairing has an easy chemistry and they are a pile of fun to watch. The way Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) is able to transform her face from slyly judgmental to sympathetic is a feat of acting. In fact, I would attribute most of this impressive relationship building to acting rather than writing.

While the show is about family, it is not usually about family love and this is where it loses me especially in later seasons. If Gillian is going to confess to her husbands murder every other episode, I want to believe that she loved him at one point. Or that she loved anyone at one point. I’d settle to understand why she isn’t capable of love.

There are so few moments of genuine love in season 5. Although the plot twists and secret spilling are fun, they are at the expense of the character relationships which hooked me in the first place.

Kerri: I think, overall, I liked the show more than you, but I tend to agree, some of the character development (or lack thereof) over five seasons, even if they are relatively short, strains belief. While watching, I could never quite decide if this was a good, well-made show, with terrific acting, that also had some shortcomings, or a not-so-good show, with inconsistent writing and terrific acting. I guess I could decide on one thing.

Let’s do some final shout-outs for 2020 as a whole. Was there a moment from any show that you watched in 2020 that sticks with you?

Jane: My shoutout moment is from HBO’s The Flight Attendant. It was a show I didn’t think I’d love. A mystery caper staring Kaley Cuoco as party-girl Cassie, who wakes up next to a dead body and stumbles through a series of really bad choices to find the killer and clear her name. The moment is in the final episode between Cassie and an old fling’s mother doing her a favour. The pair (who don’t know each other) share a piercing moment of connection that was so raw it startled me. Cassie spends much of the series retreating into her imagination and memories searching for answers she thinks will help her escape her past. This mother seems to perceive this torment and (without spoiling anything) releases her while locking Cassie into the present with her eyes. “Who of us has the space to carry other people’s choices?” she asks choosing the exact words to set Cassie free.

Kerri: My 2020 TV shoutout is a moment from the last episode of the nothing-else-like-it, How To with John Wilson. The moment is small and seemingly inconsequential: John looks out into the garden and calls out at his elderly neighbour but she doesn’t hear him. Like almost everything in How To, a seemingly insignificant moment is given importance through John’s ability to connect these fleeting and mundane moments of strangers or physical detritus on New York streets, captured on his always rolling camera, to the goings on in his own life. John can no longer closely interact with his neighbour because he is worried about her safety and, worse, he can’t even interact with her from afar. Like for so many of us, the pandemic has pushed his relationships further from him. It feels like this relationship is out of reach or at least out of earshot. The way John works back to connecting with his neighbour after this moment is one of the most odd, profound, beautiful and unexpected things I’ve seen in a very long time. It was the best bit of pandemic-related TV I saw this year.

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