At the beginning of the Vicious Christmas special, Derek Jacobi’s Stuart is—where else?—on the phone with his mother. Ian McKellen’s Freddie vents his irritation with his partner from off-stage, but finally he makes his grand entrance down the spiral staircase. “I can’t belieeeve your mother lives to see another Christmas,” he whines. “Even God doesn’t want to spend time with her.” So begins a very Vicious Christmas, with bickering loved ones trapped in their Sisyphean sitcom, desperate for their theatrical performances to sell the same old jokes that TV has been peddling forever.

The first act is particularly rusty as creator Gary Janetti flies through the reintroductions. There’s Iwan Rheon’s innocent Ash, whose parents are in prison. There’s Frances De La Tour’s bawdy Violet, who is now dating some lard who never appears, the better to pelt him with fat jokes. Finally there’s Marcia Warren’s Penelope, who’s so out to lunch she knocks on the door and asks for directions to Freddie and Stuart’s. The well-worn types are the cost of doing business with Vicious. It’s the timing that’s off, in the early going anyway. These are the fussiest characters this side of The Newsroom, and they keep skipping over things that would normally be sticking points.

That’s because this isn’t just another episode of Vicious. It’s a Christmas special. Semi-retired Freddie’s excited about a new part he’s playing. “He’s an older man under a tremendous amount of pressure at work. He can run the factory but not his personal life. And consequently he’s a very tortured individual.” Stuart clarifies, “He’s playing Father Christmas at Whiteleys.” That’s Christmas on Vicious, a sitcom-cynical take on holiday cheer. Everyone’s coming over to Freddie and Stuart’s for Christmas dinner, including Violet’s new guy, who will require extra food. Stuart’s used to cooking a special dinner, but Ash wants to do it this year as a gesture of gratitude for his new makeshift family. Seventh wheel Mason’s been invited, but nobody’s heard from him, and nobody’s going to investigate too hard either. Passive-aggression rules the day. It’s Christmas.

Vicious gradually reveals its deeper Christmas spirit, that is, melancholy. Over the course of the episode, everyone takes a tumble. Freddie licks his wounds after his take on Santa was not very well received by the children waiting to take their picture. He also finds out that Stuart and Penelope once slept together. Violet’s fatso fatly breaks up with her right outside Freddie and Stuart’s flat. Ash cooks a beautiful meal and then drops it on the floor. Twice. The second time comes courtesy of the decrepit family dog who, having metabolized some of Ash’s meal from the first spill, bounds up the stairs and trips Freddie, who falls on Ash and sends dinner flying. As everyone sits around eating sandwiches, a lonely off-screen voice mail paints a rich picture of Mason sitting alone in his flat, waiting for Penelope to pick him up on her way to Freddie and Stuart’s. Mason signs off, “Merry Christmas, assholes!”

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That’s a telling line for two reasons. First, it’s no “Dolly Parton’s tits.” “Merry Christmas, assholes” has all the bite of teenagers calling friends “bitch” and “slut” all the time. Most of the jokes in the Christmas special are similarly dulled. Freddie tells Stuart, “My present is I supported you for 49 years. What did you get me?” The response is so predictable you can say it with him: “A burial plot.” Later, Penelope says, “My husband died on Christmas day, and it was more enjoyable than this.” And that’s one of the better lines. Everything depends on the actors. Luckily these are very good actors. As Penelope corroborates Stuart’s story, even adding to it when she corrects him that they had sex twice, the way McKellen turns to her and glares is as funny as his line, “Why is your memory so vivid all of a sudden?” In another scene Freddie sits waiting for Ash’s multi-hour preparation to come to a close. “If I don’t get to eat something soon, I’m going to kill somebody.” Penelope stares at him with her wide eyes and asks, “But not really, though, right?” And there is some funny writing along the way. For instance, there’s a running gag early on where everything about the day reminds Ash of the increasingly silly way his parents wound up in prison. “I love Truth Or Dare. We used to play it all the time when I was a kid. That’s how my Dad ended up robbing Domino’s.”

The second point about “Merry Christmas, assholes” is it captures the show’s cuddly grinchitude. As TV has been telling us for years, Christmas is sad, and it’s a Violet’s-boyfriend-sized disappointment to everyone on Vicious. At least they have each other? Well, no and yes. Vicious isn’t a show where the grumpy characters are just pretending or exaggerating. They’re all quite candid and sincere about their frustrations with one another. But after Mason’s message, Freddie gets the last word: “Well, that was nice of him to call.” And he means it. He appreciates Mason’s presence in his life, he appreciates the act of courtesy, but most of all, Freddie Thornhill is a man who appreciates a good telling off. It takes a whole episode, but in the final lines, the Christmas special finally gets back to being truly Vicious.

Stray observation:

  • Freddie defends his performance: “He’s a man. He’s a three-dimensional person. I can’t just play him ‘like Father Christmas.’ I’ve got to play the truth.” Stuart: “Yes, well the truth is he’s supposed to be jolly. Not suicidal.”

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