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Fabulous? More wickedly gleeful

Jennifer Saunders' 'Vivienne' mines the tragicomedy of TV talk shows and, true to character, she puts the fun in dysfunctional.

September 12, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

Best known in the U.S. for "Absolutely Fabulous," which she cowrote and in which she costarred, Jennifer Saunders is back with "The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle," the story of a daytime TV tabloid talk-show host. (The six-part series premiered Sunday on the Sundance Channel; its first episode will repeat at 6 p.m. today.) She has been back before, most recently with "Clatterford" and other series not seen here -- in Britain she has never been away -- but "AbFab" was a phenomenon popular enough to be known by a nickname, one of the biggest British imports ever.

This is not that; it is too dry and unaccommodating for that kind of big success. It's very good, I think, but it belongs to some new category -- what we might call post-sitcom sitcoms, or even post-comedy comedies, funny but somehow not exactly designed for laughs. "Black comedy" doesn't quite say it, although the main characters are tragically dysfunctional and the subject is the exploitation of human weakness for profit.

Here, Saunders has as a cowriter not her long-standing partner, Dawn French, but Tanya Byron, a clinical psychologist who got famous a few years ago as part of the British parenting series "Little Angels," something like the "nanny" shows we see here. Byron is also the daughter of a director, the sister of a TV producer and the wife of an actor, so this is familiar territory for her in two respects.

The series begins as Vivienne Vyle (Saunders), whose name and manner are a take-off on the real British daytime TV tabloid talk-show host Jeremy Kyle, gets a ratings boost after an on-air scuffle lands her in the hospital. ("You disgust me and most of my audience," is how she'll typically address a guest. "But I'm not here to judge you.") While she's there, psychologist Jonathan Fowler (Jason Watkins) steps in to mediate an argument between Vivienne and her producer, Helena De' Wend (Miranda Richardson), and explains Vivienne to herself.

"If what you do is take people apart in public and then not give them back anything to replace what they've lost, then I think it's only a matter of time before someone turns around and punches you."

"Ooooh," she answers sarcastically. "Gasps from the audience."

Helena hires Jonathan as a consultant, and Vivienne comes to see his value: His presence will allow them to make TV not just for the unhappy and unlucky but also for the "really mentally ill. We'll do real therapy on television. . . . This is how I can be seen to really care."

"I want cutters," she says, "manic depressives, suicidals, the obese, the, whatchacall, the morbidly obese." And Fowler, though he at first decries her show as a "theater of cruelty," finds himself seduced by his minor celebrity, and by Helena.

Saunders is wonderful throughout, imperious and insecure. But Richardson on her own is reason enough to watch. It's a manic, utterly disheveled performance, full of vinegar and glee. Helena's only loyalty is to good television, to the extent that everything else in her life is a mess, including her hair. She is concerned enough about her nanny-raised child to know that she should be concerned: "My child is 2 years old, you know, still sleeps in the bed with me, only speaks Spanish," she tells Jonathan. "Is that important?" But she is too distracted to do much about it.

There is a degree of "AbFab" heroines Edina and Patsy in Vivienne and Helena -- a certain "us against the world" attitude and a capacity for rewriting reality -- although the current pair are far more capable, ruthless, focused and profane. But as extreme as they are, and as grotesque, they belong to something closer to the real world rather than to the exaggerated alternate universe that was home to "AbFab." Some of this is purely a matter of production values -- "Vivienne Vyle" is beautifully filmed, more beautifully almost than a comedy needs to be. Even when it dips into sitcom territory, as when Vivienne's gay husband, Jared (Conleth Hill), and a friend try to fix the plumbing with kitchen utensils, it is a different sort of animal.



'The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle'

Where: Sundance

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence.)

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