Why should we care about Adam Smallbone?
This is the most fundamental question anyone can ask about a protagonist, but it’s also the sort of question you never want to be asking. If you’re sitting there, actively questioning why you should care about the person at the center of the story, that’s not good. It means you’re hung up on something the show has failed at, at something that should be the most basic of story rules. If you don’t care about the protagonist, it’s hard to care about anything else, no matter how hard you try. There can be vivid supporting characters or a fun setting or a great plot, but without somebody vibrant at the center, driving everything forward, it’s hard to get too involved, beyond an intellectual level.
Obviously, that’s not the case with Adam. Yet the more I watch the show, I find myself ending every episode amazed that we still feel sympathetic toward the guy at the end of the half-hour. This is a man who allows himself to be consumed by petty jealousy and anger, a man who can’t seem to get his all-too-human emotions under control, when he should be someone who sees beyond those things. He’s supposed to be a man who rises above and cares less about these little, earthly things. Certainly his parishioners and those who work with him expect him to be capable of transcending his own base nature. But he’s not, not ever. In this episode, he becomes insanely jealous of Abi, the new female vicar who’s been assigned to his church, so he can help her get ready for the surely bright future ahead of her. Instead of being able to appreciate her talent and kindness, though, Adam can’t believe how she packs the church, how his parishioners seem inspired by her and bored by him.
Yet it’s the fact that Adam’s so small that makes the show work. There’s a wonderful conflict at work here, sort of the inverse of the antihero dynamic. On the one hand, we want to see Adam live up to the goodness his job implies, because we like to see people who can exist as role models or examples for how we might live our lives. On the other hand, that’s boring, because there’s not a lot of conflict there, and it’s hard for us to relate to someone who’s perfect. So the show becomes that much more compelling when Adam is trying to live up to the collar but utterly failing, even if he’s doing so accidentally. When Adam fails, he becomes one of us. When he succeeds at his calling, then, it carries that much more of a sense of the bittersweet. We know that another day will come around, and he’ll fall back into the same old pitfalls, the same old doubts.
All of that said, this episode wasn’t as successful as most of series one, while being a step above last week’s. The accidental drug overdose is one of those things that’s hard to derive good comedy from, since it’s such an overplayed trope and it’s the sort of thing that reduces the agency of the characters, who are tricked into taking the drugs and, thus, become the victim of another character, rather than choosing to do something on their own. To be sure, it’s hard to see Adam ingesting ecstasy any other way, and there are plenty of funny moments here, like Adam’s weird trot out to join the kids during the service, announcing that he’s a leper, too. But overall, having Adam accidentally take ecstasy didn’t add much to the story and made for a weak climax, tying everything up with an Adam and Colin scene that felt a little more formulaic than it had to.
On the other hand, I liked almost everything on the way to that ending. The series has created such a rich world that when Adam is suddenly having gunfire rain down upon him, it feels like the sort of thing that could happen, not because his neighborhood is so hellish but because his neighborhood is so off-kilter. When it turns out that the gunfire comes from Colin trying to kill squirrels (of course), it, again, reinforces the loopiness of the show’s world. This feels a little more like Rev. than last week’s episode, and it feels as if the show’s been finding its way back into its rhythms. That this leads into a scene where Adam talks with his wife and the Arch-Deacon about the new vicar is even better.
I also liked that the episode went out of its way to not have Adam fall for Abi or find her ridiculously hot or anything like that. I liked the very slow build with Ellie in the first series—even if the way Adam’s feelings were ultimately expressed was sometimes strained—but I wouldn’t want to see the series do that twice (particularly over the course of a single episode). The show chooses a different conflict, one that’s also a bit of a trip to a familiar well, but one that’s not as common when you’re dealing with men and younger, attractive women. Abi’s just plain good at what she does, and someday, she might very well be a female bishop, something the church is very excited about. Yet even from the first, it’s clear she’s operating on a different level than both Adam and Nigel (who takes issue with her book on mostly pedantic reasons). The two can’t really hope to keep up, and that reduces the former, at least, to the state we find him in for much of the episode.
If Rev. has a formula (and I don’t really know that it does), it takes the form of spending the first 10 minutes setting up the various conflicts for the episode, the second 10 minutes getting Adam in deeper and deeper, usually with some solid cringe-comedy moments, then the final 10 minutes showing Adam that there are things deeper and more mysterious going on all around him. This episode settles into that formula fairly comfortably, and while I appreciate the attempts to shake things up with the ecstasy at the end, it otherwise hurt some of what the episode had been building toward. Adam was finding his way toward loving Abi and being able to accept her all on his own. He didn’t really need the help of ecstasy, even if it made for some funnier bits. There’s always that rough balance here between keeping Adam human (and funny) and making Adam someone with a higher calling. Though I liked this episode on the whole, I’m not sure it didn’t hit the former part of the balance a little too hard to make the latter sing as much as it usually does.
- Colin pulling open his coat to reveal the squirrel pelts is a pretty great visual gag. How much do you want to bet he sold every single one of those?
- I wouldn’t want to read Abi’s book either, Adam. That thing looks like it would put you to sleep repeatedly.
- My favorite scene was likely the one where Adam can’t properly articulate a reason to the Arch-Deacon why he wants Abi dismissed. He just does, okay? Isn’t that good enough?