The thing about being a Christian is that forgiveness isn’t optional. Following the religion to the letter means believing that everyone you meet—even the worst person alive—is a story of redemption waiting to happen, an unexpected miracle brought into being by the transformative power of the divine. But because Christianity is practiced by human beings, it—like all other religions—promptly sets up boundaries on what is and isn’t acceptable. The creation of the church, the denomination, and the religion they both belong to is an attempt by man to cordon off whatever God might be, to make the holy into something safe and palatable for a mass audience. And yet if God exists, he would be far more than we could comprehend, especially if he wants us to withhold easy condemnation or judgment of others.
If the remarkable, near-perfect third (and possibly final) season of the British sitcom Rev. has an idea at its center, it stems from all of the above and zeroes in on how difficult forgiveness is for us small, petty human beings, so caught up in our own concerns and unable to see things through another’s eyes. Rev., which returned this weekend on Hulu, has always been about the conflict not between faith and doubt—though it has a fair amount of that as well—but between belief and religion, between the idea that there are things we can believe so acutely that they fill us with a kind of awe and terror at our own significance, only to be confronted with religious institutions designed to repackage that feeling so it’s less threatening. The series’ lead character, London vicar Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander), is constantly trapped between his own limited conception of the universe and the brief moments when he feels a presence that might be God. And whenever he feels that presence, it’s inevitably whisked away by having to deal with church politics. In the world of Rev., the thing that stands the most in the way of the clergy having a relationship with the divine is their own job.
Season three’s genius lies in how completely it pushes Adam to consider the limits of human compassion. In the premiere, he laments the way his local parish—St. Saviour’s—is struggling to meet its financial obligations, while a local mosque has no such problems. He briefly asks God (in one of the prayers articulated in voiceover that appear in every episode) if the reason for the success of the local Islamic community is because of all of the rules. People like rules, he reasons, and the modern church has fewer and fewer of them. And yet as the season goes on, Adam finds himself in conflict with the rules over and over again, when he tries to marry a couple of gay friends, say, or when a minor indiscretion threatens to blow up into something that could destroy his career.
Even when Adam is attempting to follow the rules, he’s bumping up against humanity’s inability to follow the precepts of the divine. In the season’s fourth and best episode, Adam thinks his financial woes might finally be over when a new parishioner is revealed to be a crackerjack accountant who can help him plug up holes and return the parish to solvency. And yet this parishioner is guilty of a horrifying crime, one that would be difficult for anyone to forgive. If the church is to emulate the example of Jesus—who certainly broke bread with all manner of outcasts in his day—then it needs to be able to welcome in those who are the most vilified in their communities. But this is easier said than done, the kind of thing that’s easy to support in theory, until it’s actually time to extend the forgiveness and grace one might believe they should be given to someone who might need it the most. It’s a complicated, thorny episode, and in its willingness to push these Christian ideals to their absolute breaking point, it showcases the series at its very best.
Missing in all of the above is that Rev. is, ostensibly, a comedy. There are great, laugh-out-loud moments in every single episode, particularly involving Simon McBurney’s agreeably fussy Archdeacon Robert, Adam’s boss but also, unexpectedly, one of his better friends. The show also gets solid laughs from Miles Jupp’s pedantic Nigel and Steve Evets’ earthy Colin. But it’s not a show that’s aiming for huge, constant laughter. Instead, it’s marked as a comedy by its tone, which is unexpectedly welcoming and gentle, inviting the audience into a kind of silent hopefulness that’s all too appropriate for a series set primarily in a church.
Despite the series’ setting, co-creators Hollander and James Wood don’t spend their time having the characters debate the existence of God or argue about theological precepts. It’s not a show about religion; it’s instead a show about the way that human beings fumble toward being good to each other, about what it means to gather together into a place where fervent hope in things unseen is the only thing uniting a congregation together. Rev. is keenly interested not in religious dogma, but in the way that faith is built through relationships, and it follows that through to its logical conclusion in one of TV’s best portrayals of a marriage, between Adam and his wife, Alex (the always tremendous Olivia Colman). The two are new parents this season, and the series makes the most out of how suddenly being responsible for another human being can send an otherwise happy couple drifting in uncertainty.
Fittingly, season three matches season two’s climactic Christmas special with a series of episodes that have symbolic resonance with the Christian holy week. Adam attends a last supper, and the incredibly rich fifth episode is filled with allusions to Good Friday, some minor and some blatant. (The series actually contrives a way to get Adam to carry a cross through the streets of London.) Director Peter Cattaneo makes the most of these moments of Biblical importance, focusing on the light streaming into St. Saviour’s from heaven, or on seagulls that show up in the inner city and might seem like angels. What makes Rev. so special, even for those who don’t believe, is that it understands Good Friday must be followed by Easter, resurrection can come from death sometimes, and we create our own light when we put aside our base natures and find a way to forgive. The miraculous is all around every one of us at every moment, if only we stop to pay attention to a baby’s smile or the request of a friend who needs our help or even the simple call of the birds.
Created by: Tom Hollander and James Wood
Starring: Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman, Simon McBurney, Miles Jupp, Steve Evets
Debuted: Sunday on Hulu. Hulu Plus subscribers can watch all episodes; non-subscribers get one new episode every Sunday.
Format: Half-hour single-camera comedy
Entire season watched for review