TV Review: This Life

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The Independent Culture
It is gratifying to see that This Life, BBC2's houseshare drama, has quietly and patiently been building an audience for itself. Nothing sensational you understand - but the steady, ratcheted increments seem to suggest that viewers are getting the point of the series rather better than the critics who gave it such a dusty welcome. This is gratifying because what is best about the drama is what is missing from it: false crescendos, melodrama, the ready narrative satisfactions of a conventional soap - and it isn't always the case that such restraint is rewarded.

Not a great deal happens in This Life, and what does, happens at a meandering, hesitant pace, taking its time to come to some kind of resolution. When the resolution comes, moreover, it is often messy or unsatisfactory. Warren, the gay solicitor, dreams of the perfect man, finds him, agonises about the first move and the next and then finds that he's fallen for someone even deeper in the closet than himself. His long-delayed confession to his brother results, not in the cathartic, teary acceptance you think you have been set up for, but in a shocked departure, confirming Warren's worst fears. Anna is no closer to getting Miles, Egg is no closer to getting a job and Warren's therapist is getting rich.

What keeps you watching, in the absence of much discernable forward motion, is a quality of observation - the dialogue, apart from the odd passage here and there, continues to have an eavesdropped quality. It requires of the viewer a gossipy attentiveness, just as the oblique plotting does. You watch it as you might watch two people in an office whom you suspect of having an affair - for small clues, not loud exclamations. This week, for example, Milly's burgeoning infatuation with her boss emerged partly through confessional girl-talk with Anna, but was nicely rounded out by a clumsy exchange as she walked with him to visit a client in his hotel room. They were about to enter a room with a bed in it, and that looming fact made their small-talk turn suddenly dumb.

This Life also seems to me to be wise about the emotions it explores. Milly finally decides not to sleep with her boss (having established beyond doubt that she could if she wanted), a scene which in a less nervous drama would have been followed by some alternative satisfaction - having stolen one consummation from you, the writer might feel obliged to supply another - a wild reconciliation with Egg, perhaps. Here you just see Milly looking wretched with disappointment, a recognition that virtue isn't always its own reward. Resisting temptation doesn't leave you feeling joyous and restored, it leaves you feeling dull and deprived, which is why people find it so hard to do. What is excellent about This Life is that it recognises the fact and works out how to do something with such unpromising material.

Rescue, Channel 4's contribution to the ambulance-chasing genre, begins with the conventional urgent chords and even uses a typeface strikingly like that of 999 for its own title. But the series has demonstrated exactly what Channel 4 can do best, when it sets its mind to it: taking popular material and twisting it into a new, a more intelligent, light. The clarity of the method - to take similar emergencies separated by time and see what has changed in the interim - was a little blurred in the last of the series, which considered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the Moorgate Tube crash and the Hillsborough disaster. In this case, not much seemed to have changed - as it was Hillsborough itself that changed attitudes to the counselling of emergency workers. But the film did contain a telling echo - a fireman from Moorgate and a policeman from Hillsborough talking in strikingly identical terms about the intense bonds formed with victims who then disappear from their lives. It was as though they had become engrossed in a story and been deprived of any kind of ending at all - which raised the awful possibility that none of it meant anything in the first place.

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