I don’t know if the UK and Ireland invented the six episode comedic/confessional TV format, but their writers have certainly perfected it. This Way Up, created by and starring Aisling Bea, stands alongside similarly-styled series like Fleabag, Back to Life, and Catastrophe: A 30s-ish woman on the brink of a breakdown attempts to sort out her life and career in awkward ways, using wry, sharp humor as a mask over deep emotional pain. And for some of us, it is a searing reflection.
In this version of what has proven to be a darkly winning formula, Bea’s Áine is introduced as coming straight out of rehab for a deep depression that left her suicidal. Her protective older sister Shona (Sharon Horgan) arrives to take her home, and the two immediately define themselves as an inseparable pair; they fuss, rib each other, and are absolutely each other’s anchor. Shona is confident with Áine that she will be fine, but turns back to the the nurse with an implied ”...right?” The answer isn’t worked out yet.
In the first season, Áine returns to her job as an English-as-a-second-language teacher, where she gets extra work tutoring a young French boy who recently lost his mother and was sent to London live with his biological father Richard (Tobias Menzies)—a man who previously didn’t even know he existed. Áine’s constant gabbing and inherent playfulness allows Étienne (Dorian Grover) to open up, but it also catches the eye of his quiet and seemingly humorless father. As that potential romance slowly plays out over the course of the show’s two seasons, Áine also charmingly and chaotically bounces around in the lives of Shona and her patient boyfriend Vish (Aasif Mandvi), as well as that of her own down-to-earth roommate Bradley (Kadiff Kirwan), with whom she develops a true friendship.
All the while, Áine continues to battle the darkness that sent her to rehab in the first place, but it usually happens in quiet moments. She gets uninvited from a party and pretends she has alternate plans, telling Shona she needs to get ready at her house—even though it’s just an excuse to not be alone for awhile. When she has a personal setback she falls into old destructive habits, and laughs off an ex’s bad behavior as a way to brace herself to leave his place without crying. She makes fun of herself, never stops talking, and makes constant jokes to deflect personal questions or from delving too deep into what’s really going on with her or how she feels. Even when she fights with Shona or her mother—Áine has a childlike enthusiasm that can also devolve into childishness—she gets frustrated and stomps around, but ultimately ends things with a joke. Once, after sex, she starts crying and says it’s because that brief feeling of happiness was just so nice before the sadness flooded back in. In these scenes, Áine stops laughing and gets quiet. A kind of shadow passes over her. Then she stuffs it away and smiles again, moving on.
This Way Up’s scope is exceptionally tight, focusing entirely on daily events for Áine and Shona that are told linearly, if not consecutively. There are small jumps between episodes, or between its two current seasons (the latter of which was made post-COVID, but introduces the start of the pandemic briefly in its heartbreaking finale) to reach certain narrative or emotional ends. All of it leads to a taught, intense experience. The entire series, so far, can be watched in four hours. It’s an easy binge in some ways—Bea and Horgan are genuinely hysterical, with a natural rapport especially when it comes their shared Irish background. (Being Irish-Catholic is the basis of so many jokes, including a great sudden rendition of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” in front of Vish’s polite but confused Indian family.) In other ways that emotional depth and blunt realness can be overwhelming.
But like everything in This Way Up, it comes out of love. What makes the show so compelling is that sense of inclusiveness and openness that Bea in particular brings to Áine. She’s impulsive, silly, and vulnerable, projecting a constant anxiety where she performs both to express herself and to be liked or understood. It’s beautiful, charming, and exhausting. It’s often relatable and familiar. It’s also occasionally devastating. Shona is right there in step with her, more polished and accomplished, but teetering on the edge of disaster in her personal life (including starting a women-in-business initiative with a female coworker with whom she has a complicated attraction to).
This Way Up is essentially a collection of incredibly well-wrought micro-vignettes, elevating common experiences with warmth and humor in a way that gets to the very essence of the emotions behind them. And those emotions are often monsters. One of the series’ most tragic throughlines is that of Tom (Ricky Grover), a friend Áine makes in rehab who is an alcoholic. Their interactions over the course of two seasons chart something of a shadow plot, which is Áine’s own recovery and how she sees herself—both in how she is dealing or not dealing with what sent her to rehab in the first place. Tom becomes something of a necessary check-in for Áine, which she doesn’t understand until it’s too late, and Season 2 ends with the realization that you can’t just bury things down and ignore what you don’t like about yourself.
That finale also concludes with mentions of a lockdown, entering into what we know was a sad, confusing real-life timespan of forced introspection. If there is a Season 3, hopefully it jumps beyond that first wave to see Áine on the other side, where she wants to be, and where she belongs. Or at the very least, continuing to fight her way up.
All 12 episodes of This Way Up are currently streaming on Hulu.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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