“First of all, I didn’t plan for this to happen. It just sort of happened. And then it kept on happening… It’s complicated.” —Andrew Marsden (Stephen Mangan), Bliss
Not to be confused with the erotic Oxygen series from the aughts, Bliss could be easily renamed Gaslighting: The Series. Created and directed by David Cross (who also wrote or co-wrote every episode but the third), Bliss is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, just like its lead character, Andrew Marsden (Stephen Mangan), a husband and father—times two.
Marsden is an esteemed travel writer whose persona is predicated on his anonymity. (He’s known as “The Anonymous Traveler”; his books even have “by ?” on the covers.) Except his jet-setting is a lie on top of all of his other lies: He never goes any further than the Bristol Airport, and that’s only to change cars and drive back to one of his two families. Coupled with a life of lies, Andrew’s built a life of “convenience,” in the sense that his two separate lives are actually in the same British town. He spends a week—eight days at most—with one of his families before he’s “off to work,” to spend a week with his other family. Yes, he has a protocol for how he makes his wives believe he truly was in certain cities as well as one for how he mentions his family in his books.
From the theme music (the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”) to the casting of Mangan (coming off a five-season run on Episodes and an against-type performance in the recent BBC One/Sundance TV drama The Split) in the lead role, Bliss has the sheen of a family sitcom with a happy ending waiting somewhere around the corner. In fact, Bliss has all the markers of a classic British farce, like Goodnight Sweetheart, a BBC sitcom (with time travel) from the ’90s that it’s been compared to. And while the modern setting highlights how questionable the premise is—Andrew is essentially an “accidental” bigamist, married to two women, with two teenage children as a result of these partnerships—as a comedy starring the generally affable Mangan, the natural assumption is that the audience is supposed to want everything to work out for Andrew. Or, at least, feel sympathy for his situation. After all, as Andrew says in voiceover, “It just sort of happened… It’s complicated.”
That natural assumption turns out to be incorrect. Ultimately, Bliss is a dark comedy examining the lengths to which a man—and not a particularly sympathetic or good one—will go to keep up his lies and to keep enjoying the lives to which he’s grown accustomed. Even if the enjoyment of those lives has been completely sapped because of said lies. Despite the 20-plus-minute episode runtime (save the pilot, which is a little more than 42 minutes), Cross is hesitant even to call the series a comedy or a sitcom, perfectly aware of the can of worms that classification opens to people expecting the series to be funnier or less dark than it gets. And the series gets really dark, to varying levels of success, while also melding itself with the most intense levels of cringe comedy. The funniest moments are honestly the images of Andrew silently sobbing, which are strangely cathartic—as the audience knows he deserves to suffer at least in some way—and also bursts of excellence from Mangan.
Like Cross’ previous dalliance with British dark comedy, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Bliss plays up the cringe factor to the point of ultimate discomfort, with a lead character surrounded by a world of chaos he both causes and can’t quite control. Here, that means things like pretending to be racist just to prevent being found out or interfering in his children’s happiness just to make sure the separation between the two households sticks. While Todd Margaret and Andrew Marsden are similar, in the sense that so many of their problems could be solved if they truly listened to anyone but themselves, the latter is almost too aware of his surroundings, and he puts himself in a prison of his own making because of that. The trick with Bliss is that the audience shouldn’t and ultimately doesn’t want Andrew’s problems to be solved.
While the writing has Cross’ creative fingerprints all over it, his directing shouldn’t be ignored, either, as he captures the tension and stress—and general madness—Andrew feels and faces in nearly every scene. Or, alternately, he emphasizes Andrew’s discomfort as someone who can’t even navigate a simple daily task without adding to his web of lies. There are very few scenes that don’t feature Mangan or rely on his reactions as Andrew, almost as though Mangan’s acting in a one-man show into which other people accidentally stumble. Most of the remainder belong to one of Andrew’s wives, Denise (Jo Hartley), and Cross captures her human desire for something more just as well as he does Andrew’s chaotic mess. And while this is Mangan’s show, Hartley’s performance is a major thing to take away from it all.
The most questionable creative choice in the series comes at the end of the third episode, when Andrew’s feelings about his world spiraling around him lead to a moment of self-harm. (The original Sky One airing provided an advisory during the end credits.) It’s the closest the series gets to screaming out how dark and edgy it is, and it leads to a difficult attempt in the following episode to get the tone of the series back on track. In the lead-up to this moment, Andrew’s voiceover (which is secretly an important part of the series) goes on about the “never-ending ticking clock” he feels his situation has created. That if he could just take a breath and disappear for a minute, everything would be alright. “That’s a luxury I could never have.” There’s nothing stopping Andrew from having peace, but as his self-harm makes clear, Andrew would prefer death to simply telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may.
In the end, casting one of Britain’s most charming leading men, which might appear to be a mistake, turns out to be quite intentional: One begins with the assumption, based on Mangan’s presence, that Andrew is a people pleaser, and his bigamy is an act of cowardice, but the further one gets into Bliss’ six-episode season, it’s apparent that the only person Andrew wants to please is himself. It’s like the character heard the expression “happy wife, happy life,” assumed double the wives would mean double the happiness, and now does everything he can to keep a baseline of happiness for said wives. In the case of his marriage to Kim (Heather Graham), that means giving her the kitchen remodel she wants. In the case of his marriage to Denise, that means giving her (the illusion of) a life filled with adventure. These are highly disparate goals, but that’s because they’re only seen through Andrew’s lens: Ultimately, both of these women want something more than what Andrew gives them, and that is an individual purpose. While Kim is the meeker wife and Denise the more dominant, both women are trapped in Andrew’s prison, and one of the true joys of the season is watching them break out.
As for the children born from these respective marriages, Christina (Hannah Millward) and Kris (Spike White) are sadly treated as pawns in Andrew’s quest to find the marital bliss the series’ title pokes fun at. This is a point that leads to Bliss ramping up the patriarchal surveillance trope when it comes to Christina: You can probably guess what potential storylines can come out of (or at least be teased about) two similarly aged teenagers living in the same town.
At one point, there’s a flashback to 2002, the year Andrew met both of his future wives, in which Denise asks Andrew where he thinks he’ll be in 10 years. He talks about hopefully being a successful writer, traveling all the time, married to “the right girl,” and with a family. It’s technically the life he has in the present—and the series thankfully doesn’t play the moment as winking or knowing as it could—only Denise cuts him off and tells him not to think about the “perfect scenario,” but instead the realistic one and the type of person he’ll be. The problem with Andrew is that he never stopped attempting to achieve that perfect scenario, even subconsciously. Yet, 16 years later, Denise still truly has no idea the type of person Andrew really is, and in Andrew’s mind, he’s just a good guy who things kept happening to. In his mind, he found “the right girl”—twice. But while the audience can see the original extenuating circumstances that may have gotten Andrew into hot water at first, 16 years of hot water takes away all our sympathy. Bliss isn’t the story of a well-meaning man who slowly became a villain through the years. It’s the story of a selfish man who’s been able to hide his villainy for as long as he has without the façade slipping.
Bliss is now streaming on BritBox.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.