TV Review: PSYCHOVILLE, 2.1

After an unreasonable two-year absence, only alleviated by last year's Halloween special, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's Psychoville finally returns for a second series of black comedy japes and spooky mystery. As a spiritual follow-up to The League Of Gentlemen's small-town horror, Psychoville may lack that show's insidious edge and pervasive atmosphere, but a more ambitious format (fully serialized plotting, wider scope) has helped carve it a complimentary identity. However, it's still less menacing and moody than The League ever was -- being more of a warped carnival of oddities -- perhaps signifying that Shearsmith and Pemberton are mellowing in middle-age, or that colleagues Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson were the more macabre half of their comedy troupe. I found series 1's finale of Psychoville unsatisfying, primarily because the story deserved a conclusion, but instead creaked as it tardily introduced a supernatural curveball (a magical locket owned by despotic asylum owner Nurse Kenchington), took telekinetic dwarf Robert into a ridiculous Hansel & Gretel riff, and ended on a big cliffhanger (nearly every character potentially killed in a fiery blast triggered by vengeful clown Mr Jolly's suicide vest.) With everyone's fate uncertain for years now, it's frustrating to realize an opportunity to cull redundant characters wasn't seized upon, as everyone survived Jolly's climactic explosion with only minor injuries -- such as deranged maternity nurse Joy (Dawn French), now sporting a neck brace. Bizarrely, only crazed bomber Mr Jolly was a fatality; his funeral procession opening series 2 on an amusingly absurd note, as brightly-coloured clowns descended on a bleak graveyard to bury one of their kind. A rubber chicken thrown on Jolly's coffin in lieu of a handful of earth... All your favourites are back, then: hook-handed cantankerous clown Mr Jelly (Shearsmith); the aforementioned Joy, whose motherly psychosis is now focused on caring for a catatonic Japanese teenager she believes is her "Freddie fruitcake"; blind toy collector Oscar Lomax (Pemberton), the decrepit miser who's been left partially deaf by the explosion (cue aural gaffes to sit alongside his visual slip-ups); and mother-and-son serial killers the Sowerbutts, with crabby Maureen (Shearsmith) returning home from hospital to convalesce with her hippo-jawed son David (Pemberton.) Most of the established characters don't get compelling material in this opener; instead they're given scenes to confirm they're alive and back for seconds. I sincerely hope Shearsmith and Pemberton haven't made the mistake of keeping characters around whose stories have been told, simply out of unshakeable affection. Joy and Oscar seem particularly ill-deserving of more screentime, given how their characters are a jumble of quirks and secrets that already feel shopworn. To be positive: episode 1 delivered a shock ending with a Scottish detective, investigating the hospital explosion, that appeared to show an awareness that Psychoville's oddballs lack the durability of The League's townsfolk, so do need pruning... just in a more personal, affecting way? More so than The League, Psychoville's characters are products of unique back-stories -- and while series 1 was driven by an evaporating mystery (as we learned more about each character's past and their shared history as former patients of Ravenhill Psychiatric Hospital), it remains to be seen if series 2's attempt to deepen the story will work . There are some welcome additions to series 2's mob. In particular, doctrinaire Jeremy Goode (Shearsmith), a cowardly librarian haunted by visions of the "Silent Singer"; an apparition with blonde pigtails and a mouthful of tapered fangs, that occasionally appears and dances jerkily for no discernible reason. It's a Lynchian waking nightmare that provides the premiere's most memorable sequence, when the Silent Singer makes its first visitation in the hushed library. The majority of Psychoville is only scary in a Simpsons "Treehouse Of Horror" sort of way, so whenever it delivers a true visceral shock it's always appreciated. In terms of deliciousness, the library sequence is up there with an unforgettable scene from The League when teacher Herr Lipp buried a schoolboy alive in a flower patch -- the only telltale sign being an inconspicuous breathing tube above ground, quietly puffing away. Comedy at its blackest. There's also the return of raven-haired Grace Andrews (Imelda Staunton), an officious woman introduced in the Halloween special, who appears to be the leader of a secretive group dedicated to finding Kenchington's portentous locket. A mission that's meant she's been keeping tabs on the Ravenhill patients since the explosion that almost claimed their lives. In her two appearances, Staunton hasn't been given much to do, but knowing her gift for playing monstrous but unassuming women (see her Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter & The Order Of The Phoenix) I'm expecting great things to come. Less successfully introduced was vivacious Hattie (Pemberton), a woman inspired to have a marriage of convenience with a gay friend, although future episodes promise more newcomers (one played by Being Human's Jason Watkins) that will hopefully feel like more immediate hits and take the burden off the veterans. Overall, Psychoville's back and it's as pleasingly peculiar and blissfully freakish as usual, with a fun script brought to life by a talented cast. Still, it remains to be seen if series 2's inscrutability will be as intriguing as series 1's character-led mysteries, or if we'll come to unanimous agreement Psychoville should have ended its story in 2009 -- instead returning with an all-new ensemble of weirdos. The decision to bring all the existing characters back may also be viewed as a mistake if they fail to develop reasonably, but the emergence of new grotesques should help keep things fresh if the show runs into any trouble.
WRITERS: Reece Shearsmith & Steve Pemberton DIRECTOR: Matt Lipsey CAST: Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Imelda Staunton, Dawn French, Daniel Kaluuya, Daniel Ings, Alan Francis, Mark Bonnar, Stacy Liu, Jennifer Hennessy, David Cann & Tom Andrews TRANSMISSION: 5 May 2011, BBC2, 10PM
I will be writing weekly reviews of Psychoville at my blog, Dan's Media Digest.
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