Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
There’s a sticky wicket to writing a love story between 70-year-olds: the possibility of imminent death. Romance inspires one to briefly believe in immortality; a tragedy is all the more tragic if a young person is cut down in the early throes of a lifelong passion. Maybe we all want to believe in happy endings, and it’s easier to believe in them if they last forever. Maybe romantic love is so alchemical and transformative that it makes us feel like we are transcending the limits of our earthly selves.
No matter how good life gets, it still ends. Last Tango In Halifax isn’t a crusading drama struggling with a crisis of mortality, but it still forces the viewer to grapple with the uncomfortable reality of death. Chiefly, that death exists in the midst of life, in the middle of whatever constitutes family drama for northern England—be it lesbian relationships, alcoholic ex-girlfriends, or suicidal husbands.
The spine of this show is the subtle, honest romance between Alan and Celia, played with wonderfully quiet chemistry by Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid. The rest of the show is good, sudsy character drama—nothing too fancy, but the solid stuff expected from BBC—but at first it seems all besides the point. There are other shows about women transforming after a bad marriage falls apart; there are shows about coming out, too. Last Tango In Halifax’s mini-dramas with Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and Gillian (Nicola Walker) don’t stand up on their own, even with the occasional torched car or shouting scene, but woven in with the personal dramas of the elderly couple—and the comedy of their romance—it provides a backdrop against which Alan and Celia can shape their lives. Most poignantly, that means the numbered days before their death.
The television shows that stand out in the last two decades are shows that complicate that notion of when and why death happens. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Deadwood—these shows display a fact of life many viewers never witness firsthand. Last Tango In Halifax offers the opportunity to process death in a way that is much closer to real life than those shows filled with violence and tragedy. It’s a show about living in the midst of the death, and dying in the midst of life, and it holds on to love, family, and relationships as a way to weather the one sure thing in life (aside from taxes).
In other ways, Last Tango In Halifax doesn’t hold up. There are a few unearned plot twists, and a hint of absurd, screwball comedy that strains the suspension of disbelief. In the later hours of the series, Alan and Celia get locked overnight in a museum and think they hear a ghost, which sounds like it’s straight out of a Scooby-Doo movie; it’s confusing when that thread comes to nothing beyond an adventure that ends well. It does, however, demonstrate how small dramas influence our lives in unexpected ways; Caroline and Gillian are brought together out of fear for their parents, and both of them make unexpected decisions in their romantic lives after experiencing the mild, everyday fear of losing someone.
As a TV show, Last Tango In Halifax is a little bubble of good feeling and British charm—intriguing, because creator Sally Wainwright treats the drama of a death with the same degree of gravity as the drama of breaking up. It’s all life, the show says, so it’s all important.