As both a critic and a regular TV viewer I have always appreciated the short episode runs of so many UK series. In many cases, though, that also means being sad that there simply isn’t more. That is certainly the case with the BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax (airing in the US on PBS and in reruns on Netflix), a show where to know it is to love it. The gentle series follows two septuagenarians (now octogenarians) as they rekindle a lost love and meld their two very disparate families (and dramas) together. And that’s really it. The show draws you in though because of its excellent cast and the many scrapes and bust-ups and just simple conversations they all have. It’s wonderfully full of characters you can’t wait to spend more time with.
But as fans know, that has often meant a lot of waiting. The series was last on the air in 2016 for a two-episode Christmas special that followed the 2014 season. So though technically it’s been four years, it feels like much longer since we got a full storyline for our favorites. Also, Season 4 only clocks in at a mere four episodes. (Of Note: PBS is calling this Season 4 and including the Christmas Special as part of Season 3; in the UK the special was its own season and thus this is Season 5. It’s the Great British Baking Show all over again!)
Even in that short time, we manage to check in on everyone with both warmth and wry humor. Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid) are coming up on their seventh wedding anniversary and feeling something of a seven year itch. They haven’t really been ok since disagreeing on Brexit, apparently, and Alan thus applies to a local grocery store to simply get out of the house. That upsets Celia, who is spending time (and a lot of money) on a fancy new kitchen, money that Gillian (Nicola Walker) could really use for her faltering farmhouse. Money is, as usual, at the center of many things happening in Last Tango in Halifax, realistically so. Of course there are also some funny and strange exceptions thrown in to counter that realism, like the fact that Judith (Ronni Acona) is a J.K. Rowling-esque author now who has amassed a fortune, though happiness for her and John (Tony Gardner) is still elusive.
But it’s all of the little moments with these characters that really make these stories come alive, like how John is always wincing weakly through scenes, as Gillian frets over money one minute and can’t help but have her head turned by a hot young builder in the next. Sarah Lancashire is again extraordinary as Caroline—she of the most enviable country chic kitchen you’ve ever seen—especially when it comes to a would-be relationship with a fellow teacher.
One of the great successes of Sally Wainwright’s writing style, and the way these actors handle it, is how naturally she captures the speech patterns of ordinary people, particularly those of the Yorkshire dales. Despite some exceptional theatre actors involved here, there’s nothing theatrical about these performances. There’s a scene late in the new season where I realized I just sat and watched Alan and Celia chat benignly about the pros and cons of various actions for at least five minutes. Most TV shows wouldn’t have the patience to settle on two characters chatting away about nothing like this, but then again most shows don’t have Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi doing it. But it’s not just Alan and Celia, it’s otherwise inane phone conversations between Gillian and Caroline, or a friendly security guard coming up to say hello to Alan at the grocery store, just exchanging pleasantries. It should be boring but it’s absolutely not, and never was. There’s something so wonderful about the simplicity of this small-town life with its exceptional real estate that you feel like you, too, are just standing there with them, or sitting down for tea, or taking a stroll down the corridors of the school. There’s always a spirit of inclusion here, not just among the families, but in the story this show is telling about love at any age and between any two people.
There is just so much happening in this short season, though, that just as so many of these storylines start to show their potential, everything ends. There’s a possible Bansky, a little street urchin who goes on a seaside joyride with Alan’s brother who has arrived unexpectedly, the teasing of a throuple, and a host of other surprises. Part of the series’ charm and humor comes from dropping us in on these unexpected scenarios, but because it’s so short we aren’t able to go deeper. In its first three seasons, Last Tango in Halifax was often quite dark, and dealt with difficult, emotional issues and revelations. There are a few wisps of that here, but they’re not able to develop. I was left with so many questions and desires to see more of all of these vignettes play out in more episodes, that while the series’ provided a welcomed return, it was altogether too brief. “Here’s to the next seven years,” Alan toasts to Celia. “And to seven more after that,” he adds. May it be so, and that we can come back and experience more of it with them.
Last Tango in Halifax returns to PBS Sunday, September 20th.
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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