A well-plotted romance is a thing of beauty. A couple meets in adversity, endures trials and danger, and comes through them having forged a deeper connection. Often there’s rumpy-pumpy.
There’s lots of romance on the American TV schedule, but we tend to surround it, as we surround a dog’s pills with red meat to make it easier to swallow, with murder investigations, medical emergencies, or juicy political scandals. For reasons of business (the need to eke out 22 episodes a year) or gender (the belief that men won’t watch love stories, but women will locate the relationship drama in the middle of a cop show), romance is the toy in TV’s bag of Cracker Jack. In shows like Scandal, The Good Wife, Grey’s Anatomy, Bones, and Nashville, all that business about presidents, lawyers, doctors, forensic anthropologists, and small-city mayors steals time from the really interesting bits about the characters’ love lives. (Homeland is the rare exception—for some reason, the producers keep interrupting the thriller we want to watch to remind us about a relationship we hate.)
The Brits, on the other hand, still make pure, unadulterated romances. And right now, in that odd Sunday-night-at 8, pre-Masterpiece slot, PBS is airing one of the best.
Last Tango in Halifax is the love story of Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid), 70-somethings who reconnect 60 years after a missed connection. Both are now widowed, and both live with their families—Celia’s daughter Caroline is a high-powered school administrator, while Alan’s daughter Gillian is a struggling farmer—in Yorkshire. Within hours of their reunion, they announce plans to wed, sending their shocked relatives into a tizzy.
And that’s where things get really good. As great as Jacobi and Reid are, their romance is the least interesting part of the series. Far more fascinating are the messy, muddled lives of Alan and Celia’s daughters—both of them stuck in unhappy ruts when we meet them. The sudden upheaval of the wedding announcement, and all the misadventures that follow, shake them out of their fug and set them on new, more challenging, but, they hope, more rewarding paths.
For my money, the most interesting of those paths was the one that wends through a gay neighborhood. The story of married mom Caroline—played with breathtaking verve by Sarah Lancashire—and Kate (Nina Sosaya), a kind, besotted teacher at her school, has a rare ring of truth about it. In general, the series has a lovely down-to-earth sense of realism—cats wander through living rooms, big love scenes are interrupted by deeply unsexy telephone calls about parental undergarments. And this realism is seen in the characters themselves as well: Everyone is flawed, everyone has made mistakes, disappointed people, or lashed out at some point. And yet if they’re willing to put in the hard work, they can change and move toward happiness. It’s lovely—perhaps even inspirational.
The first episode of Last Tango in Halifax aired on PBS last Sunday, but fittingly for a show about second chances, you have another opportunity to catch up before the next five air. As with the lives of the show’s characters, it just gets better from here.