When I interviewed Kevin Bigley, who plays the lovingly naive Brian on Sirens, he talked about how much the scripts for the show were getting better as the writers were starting to play more to the strengths of the ensemble in the show. I took him at his word, but had a little bit of suspicion considering he was chatting with me as a promotion for the sitcom he’s on. But after the first half-hour of the new season, I can see his point very clearly.
The best example of what Bigley means is in an early scene between Brian and his two EMT partners Johnny and Hank. As they settle up some paperwork in a hospital, the three discuss their sex lives, a conversation ignited by the quieting of Johnny and Theresa’s bedroom activities after they moved in together. It’s a simple scene but a great one. The patter is fast-paced but perfectly timed, with each character giving and taking verbal jabs while also revealing little insecurities buried underneath their bluster. This is especially true for Brian, who initially praises the metaphysical level of his asexual relationship with Voodoo, but breaks down over the fact that he’s masturbating constantly. After a fine first season, Sirens has found its voice and its rhythm, and it makes for much better kickoff to its second run of episodes.
The writers on Sirens even manage to make an old sitcom chestnut feel fresh and interesting again. The name for this episode refers to poor Johnny getting a bee sting on his dick, which causes it to swell up… much to the delight of Theresa. It happened because the couple were trying to spice up their sex life by doing it outside. The idea wasn’t even theirs, as they were inspired out of jealousy over the wild experiences that Theresa’s sister Maeve and her boyfriend Billy (also Theresa’s police partner) were having.
We’ve seen this in tons of other sitcoms, but it doesn’t feel as cloying here. Their efforts don’t feel clownish or slapsticky. It feels like it does with any relationship that is still very loving, but that cools down a bit over time—no matter how much Hank tries to make them feel lacking. It helps when they respond to a 911 call with a woman tied up in bed and her boyfriend is out cold on the floor, in a superhero costume (the voyeuristic neighbor across the street made the emergency call). As silly as Johnny feels about having sex in a public place, as the wounded gent reminds him, “You can’t be Clark Kent every day.”
For as much as I love comedy that pushes boundaries and buttons, I’m also a sucker for funny shows and movies that are rooted in real life: the drag of a dull day job interspersed with moments of weirdness (the UK version of The Office), the embarrassments and follies of youth (Freaks & Geeks), or the lumbering doublespeak and unmasked frustrations of the political sphere (The Thick of It, Veep). I think that has something to do with my love of Sirens. The show has a lot of ribald and unusual fun, but the writers ground most episodes in situations that have happened or could easily take place.
The second episode of the two-part kickoff to Season Two sticks itself firmly in a situation that likely happens to some EMTs: Johnny and the gang help save a man’s life after his heart gives out on him while he’s practicing tennis. The man, Joshua, is so grateful that he starts showing up at their dispatch offering up a box of donuts and a specially tailored shirt as thanks for his derring-do. They refer to it in the show as “White Knight Syndrome,” but also warn of its opposite “Florence Nightingale Syndrome,” where the EMT becomes obsessed with looking after the person he/she saved. “That’s how I ended up with my second wife,” Cash says. “It sucks because eventually you’ll want to kill them, and you realize you had your chance and you blew it!”
Johnny winds up moving from one end of this spectrum to the other, from accepting these gifts and nights out from his new buddy, to freaking out when he tries to make a shrimp scampi dinner for Joshua and his co-workers. The whole night seemed written just to let Michael Mosley go a little over-the-top, and the actor does not disappoint. He turns giddy when Joshua arrives at his apartment, goes into pure panic mode when he tries to find a container to send his friend home with dessert, and then lets his facial expression change about six times in as many seconds as he realizes “Oh… I got Nightingaled…” It’s a great performance by Mosley, capped off by his freak out at the end, when he goes to Joshua’s office to apologize.
Running parallel to this whole storyline is a take on the same situation, but with Brian at the center. The crew responds to a car accident and the young EMT tries to comfort a teen girl with a cut and bruised face, worried about her upcoming prom. And after running into her at the hospital a few days later, and learning that the girl’s date dumped her, Brian offers to step in and take her.
Naturally, the night starts off as noble as can be, with Brian doing everything he can to make sure that his date has one of the best nights of her life. But it takes a quick turn when the couple is named prom king and queen. In one of those great, painfully funny moments, Brian takes the mike and gives a blustery self-important speech that barely acknowledges his date. It’s a nice microcosm of the same arc that Johnny goes through, made even funnier by actor Kevin Bigley’s sharp comic timing and acting that skirts the edge of going over-the-top.
And Denis Leary’s career has been marked from the beginning by his ability to weave together the juvenile and crass, with the tender and heartfelt. He continues that streak unabated with Sirens. For example, in the first episode, he gives us the horror of Johnny’s “Sandy Handy” story (his first hand job was administered by a girl with sand and possibly sunblock on her hand) and the silliness of him getting stung in the dick by a bee, while also letting us see how much stronger Johnny’s relationship is now that he agreed to move in with his girlfriend. A lot of sitcoms attempt that same balance but Sirens is one of the few that achieves it, almost effortlessly.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.