The closest analogue for Rev. on U.S. shores might be something like Parks And Recreation or Community. It’s a little-watched show in its country of origin—most episodes struggled to cross the 1.5 million viewer mark, and from what I’ve read, the series was very nearly canceled after series one—but it’s well-liked by the critics. It won a British Television Award as best sitcom for its first series, and the reviews have been exceedingly kind. Still, it’s mostly on the air because of the BBC’s largesse, rather than because it’s any sort of runaway sensation. Seen in that context, the guest role by Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes in this episode becomes more understandable. It’s the classic case of a big guest star being brought in for a scene or two to help boost the ratings a little bit, hopefully getting people to check out the show going forward. And, indeed, this was the most-watched episode of Rev. in the U.K., if Wikipedia’s numbers are accurate.
This, however, rarely works. Bringing in a big guest star has a tendency to suck all the oxygen out of the room, and there’s no difference here. This is the weakest episode of Rev. so far, and much of its weakness stems from the way that Fiennes enters as the Bishop of London, who functions like someone who enters in a dream to help Adam find the right thing to do, then swoops out like a shadow. Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that Nigel also sees the Bishop (and is preparing tea for him), I could see fans making an argument that this is just a weird thing Adam’s imagination conjures up. Instead, he comes in to help Adam come to the right conclusion, smiles a few times at the camera, then sweeps back out. It’s an odd, odd scene, devoid of very much conflict or meaning, and it’s over almost before it starts.
No one would accuse Rev. of having tightly structured stories. It’s a series that’s all about giving you a certain feel, about stories that bounce along and hit various rapids on their trip downstream, before arriving safely home. But the story in “Episode One” feels even more discombobulated than usual. The whole thing begins with Roland and Adam spending time on a retreat to an abbey where there’s a vow of silence. The only noise we hear is Adam’s inner monologue, the time he spends alone with God, but once Roland enters, it’s like the outside world begins to creep in. Roland’s brought DVDs and food, and he has no problem with loudly talking to his friend. Adam, however, has stocked up on liquor, and he slides the drawers of the little desk open to reveal his bottles. Even when alone with God, the world is always present somewhere.
I actually quite like the transition from this little moment to the day-to-day life of London. From the silence of the abbey, in come the sounds of the city, the traffic and shouting and noise. It’s done almost entirely through sound design and shots of city life, and it reminds us of the little triumph of world-building the first series was. The next thing we see is Adam rushing down the street, on his way somewhere, dodging past people and vaulting up over bags of trash. Life has reasserted itself, and the retreat couldn’t be further away from his mind. Then, he collides with a young man, and the two go tumbling onto the ground. The man lets a purse skid out of his hands, then gets up and gets on a bus. Adam picks up the purse and discovers it belongs to Adoha, who immediately begins acclaiming him as her hero vicar, then blowing things way out of proportion.
I think what doesn’t work for me here is that Adam is especially inactive in the story. Everybody else goes out of their way to prop him up as the “hero vicar” and to get him entered in the Pride of Britain awards (which are apparently some sort of award given to noble citizens in a televised ceremony). It’s always more difficult to depict someone who doesn’t do something than it is to depict someone who actually goes ahead and does it, and the whole episode revolves around Adam not simply fessing up and saying that he didn’t stop the mugger with his crazy kung fu skills or anything similar. At the same time, though, he does try to confess, but nobody wants to listen. Sure, he doesn’t press the point, but everybody likes the idea of having this “hero” being the face of the church. As Colin points out in his crude manner, there are so many scandals and bad stories swirling around the church (particularly the Catholic Church) that it’s rare to hear good stories about a vicar or priest. Everybody wants to believe the lie so much—even if it’s about Adam—that they simply won’t listen to what he has to say.
Thus, the fact that the episode hinges on whether Adam will be able to confess to the truth becomes a bit of a misnomer. True, he’s the only person who can set the record straight, but at the same time, his need to set the lie straight is held up as a more important thing to do than the others ceasing to believe the lie. Everybody around him encourages him to simply continue with the lie, from his wife to his boss to his old friend, but the moral impetus of the “right thing to do” falls solely on Adam’s shoulders. In a way, that’s closer to how this sort of situation would unfold in reality, where the person who didn’t do anything wrong to begin with becomes the person who has to do the right thing in the end, but it’s still a rather unsatisfying setup for a dramatic storyline.
At the same time, the conclusion of the episode is so sweet and heartfelt that it’s hard to be too upset about it. Throughout the hour, Adam’s been planning a trip to the White Cliffs of Dover with some of the kids at the church’s school, but the kids couldn’t care less about going. After he’s confessed to the truth and lost his chance at a big prize and momentary glory, he and the others wait beside a mini-bus for the kids to show up for the trip. Disappointed, they suspect no one is coming, but then, two of the girls who sat in back of the class and tossed sass at Adam wander up. They’re going, because they have nothing better to do. Every time Adam gets too self-involved, the universe has a way of reminding him what his job is really about, and here it is again. It’s a chance to reach out to the people around him, to build a stronger community around the church. That may be short on material rewards, but that’s not what Adam’s aiming for. His reward will have to wait, but if he gets it, it will be very sweet indeed.
- Hey, I thought season one implied that Adam and Alex couldn’t have kids, but now that I think about it, it may have just been implying they’d been trying for a while and struggling. I’ll just assume that was the case, since it seems the two trying to have a baby will be a big part of the season.
- Seeing the archdeacon naked in the bathhouse was a complete reminder that though this show is about the church, it handles adult subject matter ably.
- For all my grousing about the scene with the bishop, Fiennes is very, very good at the part, and he almost sells what must have been a tough bit of business to get across.