We first meet Gail (Alison Steadman), who rushes to pick up her husband, Henry (Peter Davison), from a hospital appointment. Along the way, she narrowly avoids running over an old school friend. This friend’s reaction to Henry’s moans allows Gail to look at her decades-long relationship with fresh eyes. The marriage between David (Adrian Lester) and Kelly (Rachael Stirling), however, seems perfectly happy. But isn’t it always the “happiest” couples who hide the darkest secrets? It is in any case in the dramas of Mike Bartlett. Cracks are revealed when David is the target of a sustained flirtation campaign from Saira (Saira Choudhry, filling the wildly charismatic ex-Corrie acting quota in Suranne Jones’ absence).
In another apartment, a pregnant Hannah (Melissa Johns) attempts to involve Andy (Calvin Demba) in the life of their unborn baby, even as she continues her relationship with the fiancé (Joshua James) she met by the after. It is complicated. Along the hallway, Belle (Victoria Hamilton) tries – and fails – to take care of herself when her sister’s hospitalization places the added responsibility of a stubborn teenage niece (Erin Kellyman) on her.
Recognize “Beautiful”? Excitingly, Life is set in the same TV universe as Bartlett’s hugely successful Doctor Foster. Confusedly, Hamilton’s character, formerly Anna, cut her hair off and goes by a different name. She is moving back to a new town and, in a sense, Bartlett is too. Doctor Foster ruthlessly muddied the social mores of middle-class England, describing a place where “investing” was the financial crime code and dinners provided cover for infidelities and other betrayals. All bitter enough to choke, if not washed away by the ubiquitous glass-bucket of windfall.
This drama takes a different approach, recognizing human frailties with compassion. In what may be a nod to criticisms of Dr Foster’s alcoholism, Belle / Anna is recovering from her alcoholism. Intertwined stories of heartache and hope amid tasteful furnishings are typically the domain of Richard Curtis romcoms, and sometimes life turns in that direction. Overall, however, despite a few touches of magical realism and a few too many soundtracks from Guy Garvey (Stirling’s actual husband), it avoids the sanitized feelings. It’s by virtue of a script that really cares about the often marginalized characters. Hannah has a disability, for example, but it’s neither character defining nor awkwardly overlooked. Gail speaks on behalf of a generation of women diminished by traditional marriage. Henry has space to credibly express the perplexity of their husbands, who can hardly be held personally responsible for all the sins of the patriarchy.
This is British TV at its best. To quote another great Steadman character, Pamela from Gavin and Stacey: “This is the drama, Mick, I love it. As each episode layers down on the complexity of the characters, your sympathies may change, but you will still be rooted in a way someone pleases. Scathing social satire is great, but it’s a more awe-inspiring feat to turn such admiration for humanity’s ability to connect into compelling entertainment. The first signs are that Bartlett and this talented cast will be successful. And otherwise? Well, that’s life, isn’t it?