A few weeks ago, IFC renewed its new Victorian-era comedy series, Year of the Rabbit, for a second season. While the series had yet to premiere on the network yet at that point, it had already aired its first season (all six episodes) in its entirety on the UK’s Channel 4 last June. Renewal before a show even premieres is always somewhat of a unique show of confidence, but considering the fact that Year of the Rabbit is a comedy led by a unique brand of comedian in the form of Matt Berry—whose series Toast of London has also found an American home on IFC—this particular show of confidence makes a lot of sense. It makes even more sense once you’ve actually seen even a single episode of Year of the Rabbit.
Starring Berry as the eponymous Detective Inspector Eli Rabbit, Year of the Rabbit could be best described as one-third Dickensian satire, one-third procedural parody, and one-third, well, exactly the type of comedy (from the immature aspects to the surprisingly brilliant) that you’d expect from a contemporary Matt Berry starring vehicle.
When it comes to that last third component of the series, it’s worth noting that Year of the Rabbit is actually much more of an ensemble piece than something like Toast of London—which is also a large part of what makes it work as well as it does. While Rabbit is, in fact, the self-centered narcissistic blowhard one would expect from a Berry character, it’s surprisingly reined in here to allow the rest of the team to shine and to prop them up. Though, “reined in” doesn’t necessarily translate to Berry playing the straight man, considering how absurd everything in this show is, in general. As much as Berry certainly puts on his usual powerful performance as this type of character, it doesn’t overshadow the weirdness and the quirks of the other characters who follow him on this journey. Because Year of the Rabbit is full of weirdness and quirks at every densely-packed (and disease-ridden) corner.
Berry’s Rabbit is essentially a comedic take on the grizzled, booze-addled loner cop—right down to being saddled with a team he didn’t ask for—only placed within a Victorian London-era setting. That includes his green new partner in the form of the naive Detective Sergeant Wilbur Strauss (Freddie Fox) and aspiring lady cop—despite the fact that women obviously can’t be cops—Mabel Wisbech (Susan Wokoma), adopted daughter of Rabbit’s direct superior, Chief Inspector Hugh Wisbech (Alun Armstrong). (Race only comes up once in the show, and well… Things don’t work out for that one racist.) Rounding out the “team” is Gwendoline (Ann Mitchell), the owner of the local bar the team frequents and Rabbit’s closest friend and confidante. Challenging Rabbit and his team’s ability to do their jobs, however, are rival officer—with an intriguing backstory—Detective Inspector Tanner (Paul Strutter) and the series’ Big Bad, the mysterious Lydia (an unsurprisingly terrific Keeley Hawes).
Despite Rabbit’s lone wolf persona and “plays by his own rules” attitude, it’s amusing early on just how little pushback Rabbit actually goes through when it comes to the team dynamic. In fact, the trio of Rabbit, Strauss, and Mabel form a rather quick bond, which allows Year of the Rabbit to instead focus on the instant dynamics within this partnership: like Rabbit’s distrust and complete lack of understanding of any technological or scientific component, Strauss’ frustration with Rabbit constantly keeping things from him, Rabbit and Mabel’s mocking of Strauss’ poor taste in women, and how Mabel is woman, therefore, not cop material. As Wisbech even tells his daughter: “Females can’t be police, love! Because men already are. That’s logic.”
(Of course Mabel’s also a better cop than both Rabbit and Strauss, though Year of the Rabbit makes clear that that doesn’t mean she’s exactly the brightest—and definitely not the most polished—person in her own right.)
While there’s a very distinguished visual look and comedic sensibility, when it comes to the case of the week, no two episodes of Year of the Rabbit are ever quite the same. In the pilot, Rabbit and company learned a valuable lesson about the fact that women can be killers, even if they can’t be cops. The second episode was a Scooby-Doo-esque mystery centered on a ridiculous urban legend known as Brick Man. Last week’s third episode sees the team go undercover in “youth gangs,” with Rabbit having to process the fact that he’s no longer young enough to pull off an Artful Dodger act. The rest of the season sees snipers, hostage situations, and comedy gem Sally Phillps doing an insane accent.
But most surprisingly about Year of the Rabbit is how much every little joke and plot point—no matter how throwaway it seems—ultimately matters to the larger story. There is a serialized plot here, with a mass conspiracy spearheaded by Hawes’ Lydia that ends up fueling a large portion of the story. I’ll even admit, I figured that this aspect of the show would either end up being nonsensical (and to be fair, it sort of is) or not actually going anywhere, but it ends up being one of the most satisfying aspects of the series, with Year of the Rabbit connecting several threads in a way that no one would really expect going into this. While you wouldn’t expect it from the look at it—though the Victorian-era specific joke kind of tip its hand—the show’s attention to detail is its secret weapon.
Like a great deal of Berry’s starring vehicles, such as the aforementioned Toast of London (which IFC also picked up from across the pond) and even his radio show I, Regress, Year of the Rabbit is certainly an acquired comedic taste. The Victorian backdrop and the series’ stance as a Dickensian satire also adds to that aspect, as it’s clearly a smart series that also has a bunch of toilet and gross-out humor. Because, to be fair, this time in history was pretty gross. The exaggerated class dynamics simmer in nearly every scene and interaction, and if there’s one word to perfectly describe the look and feel of the entire series, it’s “grimy”—which, again, falls in line with the “pretty gross” nature of Victorian London. When it comes to distinct looks in British comedy these days, it seemingly doesn’t get much better than the work of Ben Taylor, who directed every episode of Year of the Rabbit and whose directorial fingerprint has also been all over series such British comedy series as Cuckoo, Spy, Catastrophe, and Sex Education. Here, Taylor goes for a combination of the Dickensian grime and the CSI-esque camera tricks to meld the two worlds that this series occupies and parodies, which makes it unlike anything else on TV. And that’s either a great thing or a weird thing, depending on your comedic sensibilities.
And as for the comedic sensibilities of the show itself, in terms of its origin, Year of the Rabbit was created and written by the team of Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley, who have written for such shows as: Veep, Tracey Ullman’s Show, Little Britain, Black Books, Smack the Pony, and The Armando Iannucci Shows. With this kind of creative talent behind and in front of the camera, any kind of brilliant comedy could’ve easily been made. Instead, they all went with something as niche as they possibly could, simply to prove that point even more so. Which also explains how IFC could’ve had as much faith in the series as it did before it even aired on their network and why anyone who’s not watching already should give it a chance.
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, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.