Jenna Fischer (Photo: Ilze Kitshoff/WTTV Productions Limited)
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“Bucket list? Snap!” cheers the old woman lying in front of Jamie’s car, blocking his passage to the commune where he hopes to find his birth mother. “We’re ’aving an erotic odyssey!”

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Hey, why don’t we do it in the road? That’s not an invitation; it’s a question. The song suggests modesty holds us back (“No one will be watching us”), but it’s also consideration. We don’t do it in the road because it’s selfish (and illegal, most places) to hold up traffic that way.

This nameless elderly couple refuses to stop boinking in the road long enough to let Jamie and Dave drive past. (“Young man, you’re being unreasonable. My husband’s got arthritis!”) They appear only briefly, but they sum up “An Erotic Odyssey,” in which other people are an obstruction—and what is the world but a mass of other people, each on their own path?

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Only Dave keeps Jamie from flying off blindly to Russia. “I love an adventure, but honestly… is this a good idea?” The embracer of chaos runs Jamie through a series of sobering practical questions: “Do you know where, in the very large city of Moscow, that photo was taken?” “Do you know anyone who could help you? Do you speak Russian?”

Here’s where “An Erotic Odyssey” attempts a tricky balancing act. From a narrative perspective, only the lead characters’ objectives matter. But in the world of the story, where the Earth meets its doom in 33 days, everyone’s objectives have equal weight. Jamie wants to find Layla, but his fellow Sloughians (Sloughites? Sloughingtons?) have their own urgent travel plans—the ones who aren’t doing it in the road, anyhow—and together they’ve brought traffic to a standstill. Everyone wants to get somewhere, and Jamie is just one more someone clogging the roads.

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It’s not just strangers who block our paths. Those we love and trust can obstruct our desires—they’re more likely to, really, because they have more at stake and they know exactly how to play on our sympathies. Jamie’s Mum (Pauline Quirke) gives him his biological mother’s last known address, but not before explaining her own obstructive secret-keeping. She meant to tell him about his origins, “all the adoption books say to,” but “I didn’t want to share you with your birth family.”

At first, it seems Dave’s just along for the ride, spurring Jamie on to adventure. But Dave has another kind of ride in mind. And he’ll get Jamie to humor him, even if he has to manipulate him with a heartbreaking lie to do it, even if it burns up their last petrol.

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Rhonda is more than stymied by the people around her; she’s a literal captive, held hostage by Ariel in his van, then by Leanne (at knifepoint, no less), then by Ariel again, in the backseat of a hot-wired car. He assures her he’s taking her to a safe off-grid hideaway, but his shift from genial colleague to captor is sudden and sickening. In particular, Ariel’s “I wanted to do this in a friendly, consensual way, but you’re making it very hard” is a dark callback to Leanne’s absurd fear that their abductors are “professional rapists.”

It’s technical interrogation, not sexual assault, that Ariel intends, but he’ll get what he wants by any means necessary, including lying about his intent to call 911 to rescue the trapped Leanne (seconds after he’s reminded Rhonda there are no police anywhere anymore) or abandoning Rhonda on the road in the New Mexico desert (not long after the ominous sign “next gas 100 miles”) to track down her hacker son. Like everyone else on the planet, Ariel wants what he wants. Unlike many, he has the resources to get it, even if it means thwarting everyone he comes across.

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Paterson Joseph, Kyle Soller (Photo: Ed Miller/WTTV Productions Limited)

In everything from Jekyll to Doctor Who to The Leftovers to Babylon, Paterson Joseph is spectacular, and often spectacularly fun to watch. Even when he’s as restrained as Gen. Gaines is here, Joseph gives every line a little extra something—and his delivery, along with the writing, squeezes a little of that overarching theme into one of his scenes. When he and Scotty McNeil (Kyle Soller as Rhonda’s brother!) leave the President to consider the beyond-top-secret Mount Genesis (a bunker stocked with a century’s supplies, a DNA bank to renew plant and animal life on Earth, and a sperm bank, ready to be populated by 15 carefully selected intelligent, capable, fertile young women), Joseph delivers his parting “They’d need a leader in there, sir” with every word honed to pointed perfection, cutting through to the President’s ego and cupidity. The President is an obstacle to their plan for the Earth’s rebirth, and they get around him by giving him what he doesn’t even know he wants: a bunker full of young women. Ew.

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“An Erotic Odyssey” bounces along at a good pace, but it doesn’t have the fluid storytelling ease, the emotional impact, or the thematic coherence of the first episode, and Father Jude and Sister Celine don’t fit neatly into this episode’s blaring metaphor. In the days leading to the end of the world, the church expects the second coming of Christ… and Father Jude, no longer the debunker of would-be saints, has the dubious honor of vetting the aspiring messiahs. It’s a politically dicey position and a potentially dangerous one, physically and spiritually, putting him and Sister Celine squarely in the path of the Antichrist.

As daunting as their task is, it’s not the only challenge looming before them. They face a temptation closer to home, suggested by her simple question as they sit, sharing her earbuds and listening to the President’s speech of false hope. “Did you just… put on the aftershave?” These dangers—the horror of apocalyptic death, the terror of confronting the Antichrist, the fear of seeing the a lifelong belief proven false, the allure of forbidden intimacy—are wildly different, but they all matter.

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“You’re not the only person who’s got stuff he wants to do before he dies,” Dave reminds Jamie, who shoots back, “But my stuff actually means something, doesn’t it?” But everyone’s stuff means something, to them.

When Rhonda asks “Could someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” my first thought was that even before she got dragged into a terrorist’s van, Rhonda’s had a hell of a day. Her plea was rejected, her teenage son was handed over to his drunken deadbeat of a biological father, her husband is too ill even to speak on the phone, and the world is going to end.

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But everyone’s had a hell of a day, and “An Erotic Odyssey” gets that idea across economically. We can see each other as obstacles. Or we can embrace each other as individuals with personal histories, futures, and desires, all equally human, and do our best to work together. As Leanne says, coaxing Rhonda off the empty desert road and into the pick-up truck Leanne can’t drive much longer, “I’m injured, you’re useless. We need each other.”

Stray observations

  • I love how matter-of-fact Rhonda is crowbarring open that door. None of her usual dithering or apologies, just getting it done.
  • Lloyd Owen manages to make the (as yet unnamed) U.S. President both bloodless and sleazy, which is no small feat.
  • As it was last week, the world attending to a Presidential address isn’t credible. I sympathize with the narrative shortcut, but cutting out other world leaders is a sour note in a show that’s so good at keeping its stories distinct even as they weave together.
  • Ariel is sure “the apocalypse is bollocks,” trumped up to wipe the slate clean and install the same old powers atop a new world order. If that happens, it will have to be extremely deftly handled or I’ll be very cross indeed. (Sky 1 viewers, mind your spoilers, please.)
  • An odd personal congruence: Like the series premiere, “An Erotic Odyssey” is directed by Michael Engler, who also directed last week’s excellent (and surprising: don’t click on the link if you haven’t seen it) Downton Abbey, which I also reviewed, and this week’s Downton Abbey, as well as the two episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt I rewatched this week. He’s my director of the month, apparently.
  • Dave yelling through the windshield, “You realize you haven’t had an egg today?!” is maybe my favorite moment of the episode.

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