Enjoyably amiable and low on incident, Gavin & Stacey is the kind of show American producers just don't have any idea how to make anymore. At the same time, the fact that it's so slight means it doesn't surprise me in the least that when I tossed the idea of watching it out to my Twitter feed, I heard back from a good, large number of people who just hated it. There's really no point to it, outside of people just living their lives and telling each other wry little jokes that don't provoke belly laughs but, instead, mere chuckles. At the same time, though, isn't that the biggest point of them all?
Composed of equal parts wacky small town show, family comedy, and sweetly observational romantic comedy, Gavin & Stacey is the antithesis of most TV shows. On most TV shows, there would be more of an emphasis on the impossible odds the central couple faces in making their lives work, and Gavin would work at a wacky radio station or something, and the two would have a whole army of cute, adorable kids. The temptation with a scenario like this is to just keep tossing crap at it until it feels more like a TV show. There's really no high concept to the series. What there is to the show is pretty much the very slight idea at its center: A boy and a girl fell in love, but they lived a long way apart - in different worlds, really - and in the course of trying to make their relationship work, they realized that you can't leave your old life behind as comfortably as you might like.
Gavin & Stacey is only going to work for you if you can buy, well, Gavin and Stacey. The two could be annoyingly cutesy (and, indeed, are written as such at times), but the show has a healthy sense of just how much is too much and when we'll be rolling our eyes, instead of finding their banter enjoyable. It helps that Matthew Horne and Joanna Page make such a believable couple at the center of the show. You can buy that these two fell in love and fell hard without really thinking through the problems that might result, that their connection would keep pulling them back together again and again, even as their old lives might attract them as well. Horne's appealingly blank face and go-getter manner mesh nicely with Page's, for lack of a better word, spunk, and the series turns such small stories as having sex two times a day to be sure you conceive a child into things that feel emotionally involving.
Jaime Weinman has been talking lately about how shows never feel comfortable just doing shows that are based in the rhythms of real life. There's always a temptation to give someone an exciting career or toss in a big chunk of melodrama or what have you. It makes sense why. Shows that conform to the rhythms of real life - hell, art that conforms to the rhythms of real life - are rarely big hits. (The closest I can think of to a show that did this and managed some sort of ratings success was thirtysomething, a show that was never a huge hit in any fashion other than demographically.) Why would anyone want to see people living the sorts of lives we already lead when most of us turn on TV to escape the rigor of real life?
But this is too bad. To use Weinman's example, a show like Big Love has enough drama inherent in its premise that it doesn't necessarily need to toss in lots and lots of melodrama. Yet, nonetheless, the series doesn't trust that the interplay of the characters will be enough to keep the audience coming back week after week. So we end up with things like Bill running for Senate or Nicki having a daughter she never knew about. I wouldn't say either of these plots is an outright disaster, but the farther the show gets from its central characters and the more it spins them out into implausible situations, the more I wish it would just dig deeper into the emotional conflicts at its center. Hell, even a show like Friday Night Lights - as real a show as you're likely to find on TV - feels the need to toss in storylines like Coach Taylor getting tossed from his job and having to turn around a team of losers. This plot was very well done, but it was assuredly melodrama tossed at the show by the producers to see what happened.
I should say that there is plenty I don't really get about Gavin & Stacey. I intellectually understand the distance between Essex and Barry (which is near Cardiff, apparently). But I have no idea what the cultural differences between the two areas might be. From the jokes tossed around about Wales in the third series premiere, I take it that the area is something like the United Kingdom's South or Newfoundland, a place where the culture is different enough from everyone else and odd enough to everyone else that gentle mockery is more than permitted and is, indeed, expected. (One of the Twitterheads who warned me off the show said that it was "full of the Welsh." Since this meant nothin to me, I plunged on ahead.) Similarly, some of the pop culture references to British programs and the like float right over my head. While I don't hold those against the show, it will occasionally have dialogue that's too on the nose, as in a speech in the premiere, where one character tells another about how relationships are about give and take, and it's all lots of stuff you've heard before.
But the central idea of the show - this is what it's like to be young and in love and figuring out the configurations of your life - is absolutely something I can understand, something that's directly in my wheelhouse. Does a lot happen in these episodes? No. But the gentle humor and sweet sense of what it means to grow up and begin the process of living your life as it's supposed to be lived. This is to say nothing of Gavin and Stacey's friends and family, where the players include the show's creators, James Corden and Ruth Jones (as a very funny new mother named Nessa). Characters like Nessa might have been focus-grouped out of an American version, which would have surely taken someone with such a dark (some would say "realistic") worldview out of the whole thing. But on a show where taking a chance on love is at the center, such a character is needed. Taking a chance on love is terrifying, and it's through Nessa (and some of the other characters) that the series examines this.
There have been at least two attempts to create an American Gavin & Stacey, one of which was to feature a New Jersey Gavin falling in love with a South Carolina Stacey and the two first meeting up in New York City. I'm not surprised that both have failed. The American networks, who are very good at certain things, mind, would have just kept piling stuff on top of the show until it crumbled under its own weight. Something like this requires a light touch, it requires someone who can understand that watching a baby's christening unfolding in what feels like real time can be as fascinating as having that baby suddenly begin to speak. Gavin & Stacey is a show where there are long scenes of families just hanging out and having fun with each other, laughing and sharing things they love, and it's wise enough to understand that this isn't just the stuff they need to get through to get to the good stuff. It's the ONLY stuff.