Us on PBS Masterpiece Is a Sincere, Wistful Tale of Family ReckoningPhoto Courtesy of PBS TV Reviews Us
At first glance, Us looks a little bit like The Trip. In that British series, two frenemies discover they may actually love each other (as friends), or at least come to some kind of tenuous accord as they annoy each other across England and Europe. But Us, based on David Nicholls’ novel, takes that story in reverse. Here a married couple in their 50s, Douglas and Connie Petersen (Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves), plan to take one last “grand tour” of Europe together for the sake of their teenage son Albie (Tom Taylor), who is about to leave for college. But the story begins with Connie announcing to Douglas that she thinks their marriage should end, and follows Douglas’ awkward attempts to win her back by proving he can be more spontaneous.
The four-part BBC series, which PBS Masterpiece has edited into two movie-length episodes for reasons unknown, is gorgeously directed by Geoffery Sax. Filmed on location in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, and Barcelona, the sun-drenched beaches and charming cobblestone pathways provide an optimistic background to what is, on the whole, an emotionally fraught story.
The setup is familiar: Douglas is a scientist who is stuck in his ways, Connie is more of a free spirit who feels stifled after 25 years of marriage, and while they love each other there doesn’t seem to be a clear way forward—primarily for her. But the story is almost entirely from Douglas’ perspective, and Hollander is excellent as a wry, uptight husband on the brink of a heart attack, desperate to connect with a family he feels alienated from. And to be fair, they don’t make it easy. Despite flashbacks that provide context to key moments from their lives, Douglas and Connie never really seem like a good match. Connie just remains frustrated by Douglas’ intractable nature, never taking his side in never-ending battles with their petulant son and the aggravating friends he makes along the way.
Then again, Us is really a kind of personality test in terms of who you might relate to more. As a Douglas, I was entirely sympathetic towards his plight, and yet, Nicholls’ scripts and Reeves’ soulful portrayal also allowed me to understand Connie’s point of view as well. The real relationship that needs repairing in Us, though, is between Douglas and Albie. While it’s still clearly a work in progress, there’s a truth and emotional resonance that only deepens as the series goes, reflecting realistic dynamics between parents and children who have nothing in common.
Ultimately, Us changes for the better once Douglas and Connie do end up in different places. Albie takes off and leaves his parents behind after a dust-up, and Douglas tracks him across Italy and Spain in the hope of reconciliation, while Connie decides to return to England. It’s a transformative experience for Douglas, who steps out of his comfort zone in a big way—although the moral of the story seems to really be don’t do that. Nevertheless, some of the sweetest scenes come from a brief friendship he has with a fellow lonely traveler, Freja (Sofie Gråbøl), where at last Douglas finds someone who meets him where he is: no judgements, no belittlement, no frustration.
Us is not exactly heartwarming, but it is a fine balance of humor and pathos, with a naturalistic pace and a focus away from expected tourist landmarks (a kind of recurring joke within the series). There are some, to be sure, but Us remains focused on its people rather than the places, becoming a compelling, challenging character journey that feels truthful—even if it doesn’t really make a solid case for the connection between its leads in the past or present, despite Douglas’ desire to keep the union intact.
Us is both helped and hindered by how ordinary it feels, full of quiet moments set to a contemplative score by Oli Julian. Granted, it doesn’t have anything particularly revelatory to say, and is often emotionally contradictory, but such is life. At least this particular domestic drama takes places in a host of beautiful places, allowing for a sense of freedom rather than being trapped, the latter of which is what Connie and Albie are running from. Instead, it’s Douglas who walks (quite literally) out into the wide blue yonder, shedding more and more emotional baggage—and actual baggage—on his quest to put things back together, without realizing he’s going to be just fine.
Us premieres Sunday, June 20th on PBS Masterpieces
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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