There’s a beautifully simple and engaging premise to Australian supernatural drama Spirited, but it’s one that unfortunately proves to be the only saving grace of a soporific and plodding pilot. Maybe it’s partly due to the style of programming Down Under (I haven’t seen enough, beyond soaps, to make a considered judgement), but Spirited felt rather uneasy, cheap and meandering for frequent periods. But the most disappointing thing was an intentionally listless performance from co-creator/actress Claudia Karvan, who failed to deliver much of a reason to care about her character…
Suzy Darling (Karvan) is a gifted dentist and once-promising gymnast, unfortunately now trapped in a loveless marriage with narcissistic entrepreneur Steve (Rodger Corser). A veritable Stepford Wife, she’s largely ignored by her other half, or used as the butt of his jokes at dinner parties — demonstrated in one cringe-inducing scene when Steve insists his wife reveal an ironically missing tooth for their guests to laugh at. Finally at breaking point, Suzy walks out on Steve with their two young kids, Elvis (Louis Fowler) and Verity (Charlie Hancock), moving them into the Elysian Hotel to get her head straight. While in her plush penthouse she discovers the presence of a lanky British rocker called Henry (Peep Show’s Matt King) who claims to have no memory, later realizing there’s only one explanation for why only she’s the only one who can see him: he’s a ghost. Or maybe he’s a time-traveller from the ’80s, given his New Romantics attire? Or a figment of Suzy’s imagination, brought on by the stress of her marriage breaking down?
As I said, it’s a pleasingly simple concept for a romantic comedy-drama, which you can’t help turning over in your mind. It’s obvious that Suzy and Henry will become friends, but will they become lovers separated by mortality itself? Is Henry more of an “imaginary friend” character who will help get Suzy’s love life back on-track? Why do they both enter a dark, nightmarish landscape when they touch a medallion Suzy wears around her neck, Lord Of The Rings style? Why has Henry appeared in an Australian hotel? Did he die there? If not, why has he been transported to the other side of the world? Is he Suzy’s guardian angel, there to help her before he can cross over “the other side”?
There are enough questions here to lure you back for awhile, but it’s a shame relatively little about Spirited sank its teeth in here. A big problem is that, frankly, Suzy’s a flaccid and boring character, who may have your sympathy but never your heart. She’s intended to be that way after 15 years of a miserable marriage, but the pilot doesn’t let you see any radiance beneath her icy, uptight exterior. There’s a brief moment when Suzy’s stiff reservation is put aside so she can do amazing back flips in her empty penthouse, but no sense that Henry’s capable of filling her with the joy and vitality that’s been kept locked away for so long. Hopefully that will come in future episodes (as this whole show feels like it’ll chart the upward swing of Suzy’s self-esteem), but for now I was left distinctly underwhelmed by Suzy’s character and thus unable to feel excited by the prospect of watching more from Suzy and Henry as a “couple”.
A few other elements didn’t sit right with me, either, such as Suzy’s kids being improbably unconcerned they’ve been taken from their family home and dumped in a strange penthouse away from their dad. It’s always a concern when dealing with child actors that they’re good enough to cover a certain emotional range, but this was actually more the fault of co-creator Jacqueline Perske’s script, which didn’t think to give the kids a scene where they react to events.
On the plus side, he may not get much interesting to do here, but Matt King feels like genius casting. A British stand-up comedian best known for his role as crack addict Super Hans in Channel 4′s Peep Show, King is essentially a more lovable and droll version of Russell Brand, and having him play a ghost is enticing enough to keep me watching a few more episodes. I only hope the writers realize the comic potential of King and give him funnier material to work with, because he was cast adrift in this episode and Henry didn’t once raise a smile. Spirited as a whole didn’t tickle the funnybone to any great extent, being somewhat smothered by its quiet, glum tone. It should really try to live up to its title and provide something faster and livelier.
Overall, Spirited has a wonderful concept that promises fun if unoriginal entertainment, but the pilot didn’t pick up the ball and run with it. It spent far too long setting up its premise and often wandered in awfully clichéd directions (Henry realizes cats can see him! Ghosts can walk through walls! Suzy looks crazy talking to herself!), and the reticent performance from Karvan was a barrier preventing any connection between her and the audience. None of these problems can’t be fixed with relative ease, so “The Man Who Fell To Earth” will hopefully come to be seen as a faltering baby step, because the intriguing premise and presence of King would be a terrible shame to waste.
WRITER: Jacqueline Perske
DIRECTOR: Jessica Hobbs
CAST: Claudia Karvan, Matt King, Rodger Corser, Belinda Bromilow, Louis Fowler, Charlie Hancock, John Bluthal, Jane Harders, Russell Dykstra, Yael Stone, Paul Gleeson, Charlie Garver, Elan Zavelsky, Tasneem Roc, Catherine Moore, Genevieve Hegney, David Kirkham, Monique Kalmar, Melissa Kleores & Jason Economidia
TRANSMISSION: 25 August 2010 — Channel W