Matt Berry’s on a roll. After meandering a touch following Toast Of London’s last season, the English comedian made a splash Stateside with turns on FX’s What We Do In The Shadows and Netflix’s Disenchantment. Now his hit Channel 4 crime-comedy Year Of The Rabbit, which features the star as a thuggish, foul-mouthed inspector named Eli Rabbit, premieres on IFC just days after it scored a second season renewal.
A gleeful, deliciously profane riff on U.K. crime series like Ripper Street and The Sweeney, the series follows a trio of outsider enforcers in a loose approximation of London in the 1880s. Plot is relatively threadbare. The series punctuates its crime-of-the-week stories with ongoing narratives about a mysterious secret society and Rabbit’s combative relationship with a vindictive colleague (Paul Kaye, recently of Game Of Thrones). But it’s all in service to the whip-crack banter and character dynamics.
There’s little complexity to Eli Rabbit (Berry) or his new partner, the excitable, naive Wilbur Strauss (Freddie Fox), but rather it is a ready-made comedic pairing that leavens Rabbit’s rough-and-tumble nature with Strauss’ doe-eyed enthusiasm for upholding the law. Rounding out the cast is Mabel (Susan Wokoma), the adopted daughter of the chief inspector who, despite being told a woman will never be a police officer, inserts herself into enough cases that her impact can’t be ignored. It’s a pretty standard setup, but the three have instant, undeniable chemistry, and the series’ six episodes give each a chance to both indulge in and subvert their established archetypes. In the third episode, Strauss’ theatrical, grotesque embrace of his undercover work as a dirt-smeared thug remains one of the Year Of The Rabbit’s purest delights.
It’s Fox’s silly, tongue-forward chortle, not the story itself, that resonates well beyond the episode, and such is Year Of The Rabbit’s appeal. Bits are crammed into every corner of these 23-minute outings, whether it’s in the absurdities peddled by urchin children—twigs in a bun!—or Berry casually comparing his ass in mid-coitus to a “fiddler’s elbow.” Writers Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley, Black Books and Little Britain alums who also won Emmys for their work on HBO’s Veep, maintain such a manic pace that the occasional burst of gruesome violence typically serves to complement the rampant gags, which veer between groan-worthy and bracing. Not all of it feels natural. Although David Dawson makes a feast of his screen time, his oddball turn as a loquacious, dandified version of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, can’t help but feel jarring, even in a world that wears its anachronisms on its sleeve.
But all of it orbits around Berry, an actor whose luscious baritone and intricate wordplay can sometimes mask his talents as a rubber-faced physical marvel. His Rabbit is familiar in his blustery qualities, his blunt-force behaviors and explosions of pent-up emotions. He’s also, however, continually surprising, twisting his mouth around pronunciations and comically superfluous syllables that pop like firecrackers. The Dickensian milieu helps in this regard, as the actor makes magic with the era’s trappings, specifically in his bafflement over the station’s newly installed telephone, or, as he calls it with palpable disgust, “the stick.”
Berry’s lived-in turn helps distract from some of the broader questions one considers post-series: Is Rabbit, for example, actually good at his job? After six episodes, that question remains curiously unclear. For some, that might be a failure of character; for others, yet another nugget of subtle satire. It depends on how funny you find it all. The good news? You’ll probably find it very, very funny.