It’s very rare for Rev to make me laugh out loud – which might seem an unusual admission for what I’ve already described as one of my favourite comedies currently on British TV. This in itself suggests it’s worth looking more closely at how it works, and why it works so well, despite its fairly low rate of chuckles per minute; it might also suggest that when we like a TV comedy that isn’t always funny, we might want to think more about what comedy is.
To begin with the banal; Rev is about people. It devotes a large proportion of time in each episode of its second series, which finished last night, to giving us a good sense of who its characters are, what they think of those around them, what they want, and what they think they want. Knowing what someone is supposed to be like makes it more interesting, and curiously, more plausible, when they do unexpected things: when Colin experiments with alternative forms of spirituality, for instance, or when Mick (admittedly not a developed character, but a well-established comic turn) kicks drugs and shares his secrets, or when Archdeacon Robert openly discusses his sexuality along with his spirituality, both of which have up to this point been kept firmly in the background. All of these moments have emotional weight because, rather than rushing for the comic jugular, writers Tom Hollander and James Wood have taken the time to craft, through subtle detail, a sense of psychological expectation which is solid enough for viewers to accommodate new information, the kind that doesn’t vanish by the time of the next thirty-minute episode. We finish Series Two feeling we know more about these people than we did at the start of it; that the problems and questions it raises will continue to matter at the start of Series Three.
But Rev is also about God – in a serious, not a frivolous way. I don’t know, and nor do I particularly want to, if Wood and Hollander are paid-up believers; but as the credits make clear, a lot of ecumenical advice has gone into the show’s creation. It tells, because rather than reducing religion to a series of paedophile priest quips (cf episode 5 of Life’s Too Short), or the brilliant, but perhaps slightly kitsch surrealism of Father Ted, the show gives voice to the debates and doubts about mercy, morality and the treatment of others which have always driven genuine religious reflection. It’s true that the show generally supports Adam’s ministry, though it also shows him as a selfish bastard with very human failings – but by engaging with religion’s role in the world in a serious way, it elevates the inquiries of the Church to a position where they can be endorsed or dismissed from genuine understanding and criticism rather than ignorance.
This is something the best atheist comedians – Stewart Lee being the most obvious example – have also always understood, to the extent that Lee’s Catholic wife Bridget Christie challenges him for it in her own show. She expresses incomprehension at his need to have a deeper knowledge of the Bible than she does, likening it to someone with a hatred of Jeremy Clarkson watching every single episode of Top Gear. But some of Rev’s funniest, and most dramatic, moments come out of this engagement; I’m thinking of the football match in which Adam screams out a pep-talk about the difference between Catholic and Protestant interpretations of God, quoting which might make my point more clearly: ‘But most of all let’s do it for our kind, liberal God, who loves women and gays, and not their vain, tasteless, demanding God who loves gold and supported the Nazis!’
Although Rev has been well-received by critics, it doesn’t neatly fit the comedy genre, and I think this is because we’ve come to expect every moment of a comedy show to be in itself comic. It might be more helpful to consider the genre more as an indicator of tone than a contract to deliver a certain type of content; some of the best drama, after all, is full of moments of uproarious laughter (This Is England ’88, of which more next time), but wouldn’t get packaged as dramatic comedy in the same way something like Rev might end up filed under comedy-drama. The obvious point here is that genres aren’t an adequate, or a particularly useful, way to subdivide works of art; but given the criteria that develop around an art-form which we expect primarily to make us laugh, it’s worth remembering that what makes a comedy good or great might not always just be what makes it comic.