At first Vicious looks like satire. Freddie (Ian McKellen) and Stuart (Derek Jacobi) are old queens living out their golden years in a multi-camera sitcom doing what such characters do: insulting each other like they’re being graded on it. Every line’s a setup or a punchline in an endless war of insults, and every delivery involves a dismount and a pose like it’s the Olympics. This is the sitcom according to Vicious—people who are barely people living life for the joke.
It’s the next evolutionary phase of the multi-cam. It’s not that the bitchy British series is better than ’70s classics. It’s a different era, and Vicious is on steroids. A certain band of critics have been banging the drum for multi-camera sitcoms for years, and Vicious is the spirit they’ve summoned in the night.
Freddie and Stuart while away their days in a Norma Desmond flat festooned with awards from Freddie’s theater days and giant black-out curtains. When boy-next-door Ash (Iwan Rheon, Game Of Throne’s Ramsay Snow, here in the Kaley Cuoco role) innocently opens those curtains to let some light into their lives, Freddie and Stuart hiss like vampires and retreat into their kitchen. Vicious has no room for light. Ash is our guide to this strange world, confused and frightened by the sitcommery of these lovers who seem to hate one another. Really, they insult everyone, especially their friends: horny Violet (Frances De La Tour), in-and-out-of-it Penelope (Marcia Warren), and stingy Mason (Philip Voss). Then again, Ash is as much a part of this sitcom silliness as everyone else, even before he proves he can keep up with Freddie and Stuart. He’s new in town, but the reason he spends so much time with his bilious neighbors and their elderly friends is to provide the sitcom’s animating culture clash, in this case with his affable, hopeful youth.
Ash is the weird one on Vicious. The others brag about themselves, cut one another down to size, lament their lots, and complain about the conversation. When Freddie walks through a scene complimenting Violet and calling Stuart his love, it’s an expression of his depression. Episodes are so riddled with sniping and one-upmanship that to marathon is to coat oneself in armor as the arrows whiz by. All at once the pattern reveals itself, the manual assault taking on an automatic quality, although that’s partly because some of the missiles really are self-guided. Vicious thrives on the weekly return to this living room battlefield. “I never know when I’m going too far,” says Freddie to Violet after a particularly sharp retort sends Stuart off to lick his wounds in the kitchen, “but I’m always so glad when I do.”
Multi-camera sitcoms have a reputation among tastemakers for being formally uninteresting. After all, they’re closer to filmed plays than they are to filmed films; the camera tends to be less active in the sculpting. Vicious doesn’t reclaim the camera, but it does make the most of its theatricality. The physicality of these performances could teach Chuck Lorre’s multi-cam performers a thing or two. McKellen’s exaggerated servility to Ash, Jacobi’s prissy flamboyance, and De La Tour’s sexual forwardness aren’t just delicately crafted lines of dialogue; they’re full-bodied performances. Even the lamp-lit set belongs in a hall of fame: Anchor colors like olive and mustard on black that place alarm in the classy palette; textures from velvet to lace that lend an old-fashioned quality to the clean but flamboyant style; and usable levels beyond the coffee table area, like the bathroom back by the trophy shelves and the spindly staircase perfect for histrionics.
Beneath all the insults, deep down, Freddie and Stuart really do care about each other. And all their friends. Like the Harpers, the Pritchett family tree, or Max and Caroline, Freddie and Stuart believe sniping is the sincerest form of flattery. Unlike those others, Freddie and Stuart show their real faces no more than once per episode. Or maybe their fangs are real and their human teeth are dentures, and the point is they don’t feel the need to stop all the fun and be three-dimensional human beings at the end of every episode. At the conclusion of the first episode, Stuart makes a big to-do about never being able to move past Freddie’s jab. Freddie apologizes, Stuart immediately forgives him, and they’re back to bickering in two lines or less. It’s so much more fun steering into the skid.
Vicious isn’t quite a multi-cam satire or a pastiche winking at the silliness of sitcoms. No, its winks are all right there on-screen, when Freddie flirts with Ash or when Stuart mocks him for it. Rather, Vicious is an apotheosis of the form: Its theatricality is expert, its rote insult comedy is delicious but not unyielding, and its unhip datedness is mined for exactly that quality. The subjects fueling all the pettiness—gayness, performance, fame, obsolescence, love, sex—derive directly from Freddie and Stuart, the fabric of the men themselves, their relationship, and the series around them. The plots take comedy warhorses—like old people not being much for night clubs—and spins them into silk, compensating for cliché with defensive, eloquent, and wholly disproportionate fury. In the hands of McKellen, Jacobi, and company, they are sitcom characters who manage the tightrope between human warmth and on-screen viciousness, and they do it by being the best damn sitcom characters they can be.