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Last Night's Television: A marital comedy divorced from wit

Victorian Farm, BBC2<br />Life of Riley, BBC1<br/>Hustle, BBC1

Just to recap, my two basic rules of sitcoms are: Rule One, be very wary of any sitcom whose central character has the same first name as the actor playing him or her. Importantly, this doesn't apply to sitcoms whose central character simply goes by the actor's name (Hancock, Seinfeld), perhaps because that usually implies an intentional blurring of the lines between the real and the imaginary, as opposed to a leading actor who can't be relied on to remember a pretend name. And Rule Two, avoid at all costs any sitcom whose title puns on the name of the central character: Prince Among Men, The Roman Empire, The Brittas Empire, etc. There was a Rule Three, which was basically about avoiding any sitcom featuring Davina McCall, but that doesn't seem to be a worry any more and there's no point getting bound up in red tape.

Clearly, Rule Two is the one that applies in the case of Life of Riley. Caroline Quentin plays Maddy Riley, recently married to Jim Riley (Neil Dudgeon) – both are on second marriages. He has a couple of teenagers left over, she has a 10-year-old son, and there's a baby whose status I didn't catch. (Left over from first marriage? Early fruit of this relationship? Result of unmentionably grim one-night stand?) It's rather like The Brady Bunch, only with the central premise watered down owing to budgetary restrictions, and sits comfortably in the category "family sitcom", which means both that it is about a family and that it features jokes on adult subjects tweaked to appeal to the four-year-old mind.

Last night's opener revolved around the newly formed family's move into a new house, and Maddy's discovery of a discarded pregnancy-testing kit. Naturally, realising that it would be intrusive and inappropriate for her, as a new stepmother, to get involved, she talked to Jim, and he talked frankly to his teenage daughter about the consequences of unprotected sex and reassured her of his love and support. I'm kidding, of course – that wouldn't be funny at all. No, what really happened was that Maddy immediately accused stepdaughter of being pregnant but in such roundabout terms that stepdaughter thought the conversation was about something else entirely; and meanwhile, Jim stumbled across the kit and leapt to the conclusion that Maddy was pregnant (because you don't take a test unless you are definitely pregnant, right?), and then Maddy thought the conversation was about something else entirely. Which also, now that I think about it, isn't funny at all.

There's nothing overtly horrible going on here. It's just all rather dull and rather samey, and something of a waste of talent. Having seen Neil Dudgeon on stage in Sarah Kane's Blasted, having his eyeballs gouged out then gnawing on a baby's corpse, I can say with confidence that they're not exploiting his full range. And a touch of baby-eating would enliven proceedings.

Victorian Farm is, despite its title, a prescient bit of programme-making. The idea is that three historians, Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn, spend a year living the life of Victorian farmers circa 1885, doing without cars, electricity, central heating, credit cards, but growing their own food, scouring the hedgerows for berries, scrimping and preserving – basically doing what we'll all be doing in the next year or so, not to mention sending the children out to work in factories. Or child prostitution – I haven't made my mind up yet. But given the timescales involved, it's clear that this must have been planned before even the first rumble of a credit crunch.

I'm suspicious of the whole genre of period-based reality TV, such as Edwardian Country House and 1940s House, although I wouldn't mind seeing one based on Viz's "Victorian Dad". But as it turns out, this wasn't reality TV so much as social documentary with a bit of dressing up, and there was some thoughtful talk hidden among the waffle. A trip down to the canal to collect coal from a narrowboat led to a conversation about how agriculture was transformed in the age of industrial revolution: when people got access to cheap coal, it changed how they cooked, what they ate, how they washed their clothes (really hot water!); and when canals and railways made transportation of produce possible, it suddenly became possible for farmers to send their goods off to the city and buy stuff in from elsewhere, which made possible local agricultural specialisation. Television to soothe rather than excite, perhaps, but that's not a bad thing.

And if you did want a bit of 21st-century glitz, why, here's another series of Hustle, with Adrian Lester back after a break as Mickey Bricks, top conman. Last night, he was reuniting the old team and going after a ruthless businesswoman who – says Mickey, with obvious disapproval – makes money out of other people's misery (the irony of a conman saying this wasn't addressed). As always, the plot was riddled with implausibilities and inconsistencies, but at its best Hustle is very charming and manages to pull its own con: making a BBC budget look like HBO. At its worst, it's irritatingly conscious of its charm. Lester turning to the camera to give the audience a knowing look is clever and funny the first time, wearisome the second. But nice to see our heroes flourishing a fake copy of The Independent to give their con credibility.