Hulu has brought British sitcom Rev. to American shores. We'll be reviewing it weekly at 7 p.m. Eastern on Sundays. You can watch the series here.
Early on in the first episode of Rev., main character Adam says, “Oh my God.” His wife, Alex, asks if he’s taking the Lord’s name in vain, and he says not really, since, “It’s a dialogue.” The thing I like best about Rev. is that it would be so, so easy for the show to have Adam be a total hypocrite or to make fun of him for his apparently earnest belief, yet the show never does. It’s a series about a number of people in dialogue with the unknown, waiting for an answer they’re not sure will come. God doesn’t speak to people as freely as He once did, and now, we’re left to fumble for answers for ourselves. But that’s part of the grand mystery of life. Even if you don’t believe in God, you can never know everything, and that makes the process of finding things out even more fun.
The word I’d like to use to best describe Adam is “British,” but I’m not sure that will quite convey what I mean. His character has a gentle well-meaning nature that I tend to associate with the protagonists of some of the best British sitcoms, and I think he’s also basically a good person, someone who tries to do the right thing. “On Your Knees, Forget The Fees” sets up a situation in which he could easily do the wrong thing, and no one would really care all that much—probably not even God, since what he would do isn’t a sin—yet he opts to do the right thing in the end, not taking a bribe so that a local MP can get his son into the church’s well-regarded school. He’s wry and quiet and charming, Adam, but he’s also someone who struggles with his own kinds of temptation, from his apparent frequenting of the local pub to his way with curse words. (It’s a nice touch to have him take off his collar when he screams at the rude construction workers to “fuck off.”)
Rev. is also steeped in a British sensibility that makes it an unlikely choice for American import. It’s not that you can’t understand what’s going on if you watch the show as an American, but even beyond the usual cultural references that may stymie some—the Vicar Of Dibley here—there’s a lot here that stems from knowledge of the Church of England and its relationship to other churches in the nation. (When the archdeacon mentions that Adam’s predecessor went running off to Rome, it takes a second to realize that he converted to Catholicism.) Since the Church of England isn’t a real presence in the United States—we’ve got the Episcopalians, but they’re not really the same thing, nor do they carry the same influence—some of the setting’s nuances and the religious references may go over viewers’ heads.
That said, I think the thing that’s most interesting here is that the church Adam oversees is still a central pillar of its community. The Church of England, being an official state church, still carries a place of prominence in British society that churches in the U.S. don’t really have, despite the fact that the American population is more outwardly and ostentatiously religious than the British one. The United Kingdom may not have as many, say, evangelical Christians as the U.S. does, but the “neighborhood church” aspect of St. Saviour in the Marshes is one that we also don’t have here, outside of smaller communities.
Let me try and put this another way: In the U.S., churches form their own communities, especially the larger ones. In the U.K. (at least as Rev. presents it), communities have churches. St. Saviour is central to its little neighborhood in the same way that its school and the pub are. They’re all places where people congregate to talk over their lives and have something more permanent to cling to. In that sense, God is almost ancillary to the benefits of the church, which is there as much as a place for people to have weddings and other gatherings as much as anything else.
The first episode of Rev. isn’t wildly hilarious, either, but its script by James Wood is sweetly humorous all the same. The structure of the episode is more or less a collection of smaller vignettes that kind-of, sort-of add up to a larger story, if you squint, but they’re mostly there to introduce us to this world and these people. We get a sense of the relationship between Adam and Alex—warm and steady, with a sense that they’ve come through whatever trials their marriage has had and landed safely on the other side. We get a sense of the people who both work at and frequent the church. And we get a sense of how people in the community see Adam and how he relates to the people he works with. The “storyline,” as it were, is all about the people jockeying to get their kids into the school by attending church and offering to pay for the broken window. But what’s more important here is that we get to know the relationships between these people, that we get to see all of these dialogues open up.
In that event, then, the most important dialogue is the one between Adam and God, but it’s also the one we spend the least time with. Adam spends so much of the episode running around, trying to raise money to repair the window, that you don’t really see him spending time preparing sermons or communing with the divine. (Indeed, Nigel snidely comments that Adam often bumps off his sermons at the last minute.) It’s only once he’s come up against the question of whether he should let the MP’s son into the school as part of a cascading series of bribes that he finally breaks down and asks for God’s wisdom. God, of course, is silent, because this show isn’t the sort that would have him manifest as a wacky talking moose head or something, but Adam is undeterred. He does the right thing. He sits with Colin to talk over Richard Dawkins and insists there’s more to the universe than what we can scientifically observe. A snail’s shell doesn’t have to be so beautiful, yet it is.
The first time I saw this first episode of Rev., I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I knew I liked it, but I also knew I wasn’t sure why (I’m still not). It’s such a different experience from so many of the other shows I love that I can’t quite pin it down, even as I’m enjoying it in the moment. I’ve seen the whole series at this point, and what I’d recommend for those of you who are curious is to let a few episodes build up, then watch them all at once (Hulu is great for this). Once you’ve done that, the show’s rhythms and quiet themes will start to hum to life, and the humor will pop a little bit more, too. The series is tremendously good at inspiring empathy in viewers for all of its characters, even if you don’t share their point-of-view. What’s most important that you get from this first episode, though, is that Adam’s most important relationship is with a guy who never talks back, a guy who may, indeed, not exist. It’s that frustration and that wonder that drives the show. It’s a dialogue, after all.
- Colin, of course, was the culprit who broke the window, as became immediately clear once we saw the bottle he was drinking from.
- I tried hard to pin down just when this episode was supposed to take place, but I genuinely have no idea. It’s snowing, early on, but when Colin and Adam sit in the churchyard, it’s very green. Must be the cusp of spring, then.
- The show is consciously set in an inner-city parish because Wood and co-creator Tom Hollander (who plays Adam) deliberately wanted to get away from the rural parish setting of the most famous British sitcoms about vicars (like Vicar Of Dibley). It’s a choice I think really works for the series, but it’s not especially apparent in this first episode. Also, what’s up with all of the British sitcoms about vicars? What do we have here in the U.S. to compare? Amen?