A review of the television series Rev (BBC).
by Abhimanyu Das
The last half-century or so of popular culture has implanted certain perceptions of world religions in the collective imagination. Buddhists are placid, introspective pacifists…at least until you push them into revealing their inner martial artist. Catholics are all pomp, ceremony and guilt. Hindus? Exotic sex, potent drugs and multi-limbed gods. But the Church of England inhabits a unique place in this busy trafficking of religious stereotypes. They’re the Church that’s known for being, well, not that religious. In the legendary “Cake or Death” routine in his stand-up special “Dress to Kill”, comedian Eddie Izzard discusses the absurdity of the idea of an Anglican fundamentalist: “Vicar, I have done many bad things.” “So have I.” “What shall I do?” “Well, drink five Bloody Marys and you won’t remember.” This exchange is a neat summation of the central quandary in the life of Reverend Adam Smallbone, protagonist of the BBC’s ongoing sitcom Rev.
Rev follows the Reverend Adam Smallbone (diminutive comic genius Tom Hollander) as he struggles to adjust to life and work at St. Saviour-in-the-Marshes, an inner-city London parish to which he has been transferred from a more bucolic posting. Drowning in the torrent of problems brought to him by the alcoholics, junkies and assorted layabouts comprising his dwindling group of parishioners, beleaguered at home by a loving but increasingly dissatisfied wife, and affectionately but firmly held to standards by his oddly metrosexual bishop, Smallbone finds his faith under siege. Each episode (the show completed two seasons of six and seven installments respectively in 2011) follows Smallbone as he faces a different set of problems every week. Some are mined for comic purposes – an amorous parishioner, the vicar’s accidental foiling of a robbery – but, more often than not, the show makes an effort to parse the knotty issues attendant to being a priest in an increasingly irreligious 21st century metropolis. Smallbone encounters such problems as the rise of Islamophobia, fundamentalism (Islamic and Christian), his own struggle to reconcile doctrine with his more inclusionist tendencies, parishioners’ substance abuse, and the difficulty of guiding elderly worshipers through their last days.
A particular strength of the show is its consistent success at blending comedy with reflection. The problem-of-the-week plotlines could easily lapse into silly hi-jinks or go the other way into ponderous self-seriousness. However, in the hands of Hollander and writer James Wood, it walks a tightrope between the two extremes. For example, the problem of substance abuse is personified by the characters of Mick, the local crack addict and conman, along with alcoholic, occasionally homeless neighborhood denizen Colin. Belly laughs are gotten from Mick’s increasingly absurd and transparent attempts to con the Vicar for crack money, as well as from Colin’s various odd (in more than one way) jobs and schemes. But the show never trivializes their addictions. These are well fleshed out characters; damaged lost souls looking to Smallbone for spiritual comfort he is often unable to provide. Colin is the tragic embodiment of Smallbone’s failures; a frequent weekly highlight is the inevitable sobering talk between the two on a bench outside the church – the vicar admonishing Colin for his escalating drinking even as he himself chases down a cigarette or ten with a wash of lager.
The show’s deft touch is evidenced in multiple affecting storylines about hot-button topics that somehow remember to make the viewer laugh every now and then too. Of particular note is an episode dealing with inter-faith relations (“Do Muslims go to heaven?” asks a young Sunday schooler) and Smallbone’s agonized internal debate over the word of the religious text as opposed to what he desperately hopes is its spirit. Is it against Anglican Church doctrine to allow a Muslim Sunday school in the church? If not, what makes Islam inherently less “right” than Anglicanism? These and a myriad of other questions plague our befuddled protagonist, to amusing yet poignant ends.
This swirl of kitchen-sink-realism, social commentary and straight up dry-as-a-martini wit in hallowed BBC tradition is anchored by a note-perfect performance by Tom Hollander. This part could have been overplayed into shouty oblivion but Hollander delivers an actorly rendition of a comedic role—always restrained, playing the character as gentle and witty, alternately vulnerable and steadfast, immature and paternal. He loves his parishioners but, like them, he is just another human being with a whole parade of foibles. He drinks a little too much, neglects his marriage due to his work, and develops a raging crush on the parish schoolteacher. That last situation culminates in a drunken monologue/dance at a fundraiser: a case study for the use of physical comedy as a device for communicating inner crisis. In one troubling episode he steals money from the wallet of a drunk investment banker/church-goer (Richard E. Grant in a bravura what-if-Withnail-sold-out-to-the-Man performance) to cover shortfalls in the Church budget. This is a protagonist in crisis, refusing to demonize his worldly desires (he believes there is nothing wrong with drinking a pint, enjoying sex or swearing at construction workers) yet aspiring toward the spiritual purity demanded of him by his position.
Often, the internal conflict will cut deeper, to the extent that Smallbone even comes to question the veracity of his beliefs. Some of the show’s most cutting moments stem from beautifully written internal dialogues that the vicar has with God, narrated in voiceover alongside sequences of his wandering through the church or his parish. These anguished admonitions directed at the deity he is sworn to reveal his deepest frustrations, not the least of which is the ever-present theological Gordian knot of “why is there so much suffering if God is real and omnipotent?” Through his doubt, he acknowledges his inadequacies, and the self-awareness makes him a better priest. Reverend Smallbone is an ingenious subversion of and tribute to the enduring British cultural type of the Anglican vicar (see The Vicar of Dibley or any Jane Austen) as a gentle, bumbling, exclusively rural figure dealing with a Britain that probably never existed—unraveling quaint, bloodless murder mysteries, drinking tea with old ladies or, as Robin Williams would put it, keeping the Nazis away with pitchforks and colostomy bags. Rev preserves the facade of one of these country vicars but Wood and Hollander strip the mask away to reveal the insecurities festering within. And then they proceed to place the archetype in a painfully real 21st century inner city. The juxtaposition is an endlessly rewarding one.
Rev works very well on many different levels. It is a successful evocation of what it is like to be a priest in the digital age and of life in a vicarage (attested to by many vicars who are fans of the show). It manages to tease out the spiritual and existential difficulties of both the atheist and the religious life, as evinced by its legion of fans on both sides of the divide (even the Archbishop of Canterbury has professed admiration) without either glorifying or demonizing the Church. It works as comedy, as tragedy, as drama, as a character study. There are few mainstream sitcoms (or TV shows of any ilk) depicting a Christian priest seriously debating issues of faith with his perennially absent God. For this alone, Rev deserves a look.
Abhimanyu Das is a freelance journalist and NYU graduate student, working out of Kolkata and the United States. He writes about film, TV and comics and watches at least one movie a day.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.