You are forgiven if you don’t immediately find this new series very tempting. For one thing, the title. Maybe “Last Tango in Halifax” would work on top of a lifestyles article about the closing party at a local dance school; maybe not. It’s an overly used phrase referencing a sexually explicit film that has nothing to do with anything that would ever air on PBS. Also, PBS describes the series as an “uplifting” story about “romance and second chances,” which makes it sound as saccharine and hackneyed as a Geritol commercial.
You are forgiven, and you are hereby invited to reconsider “Last Tango in Halifax,” which premieres on Sunday at 8 p.m. on Channel 2. This six-part series is indeed sentimental and familiar as it takes on love between two 70-somethings; here there be some treacle. But it’s so much more interesting than that. It’s also about regrets, it’s about unwelcome detours in life, it’s about the superficiality of cultural differences, it’s about the dangers of silence, it’s about that path we were once too weak to take. It’s about a pair of lived-in and emotionally honest performances, by Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid as the romantic pair, Alan and Celia.
And, not least of all, it’s about portraying older people on TV without patronizing or ridiculing them. Most TV characters over 70 are one-dimensional — the curmudgeon, the cutesy grandparent, or the punch line (sorry, Betty White, I love you, but . . .). In “Last Tango in Halifax,” Alan and Celia are more layered creations. Why, they even know how to use the Internet, and they actually manage to reconnect — like every baby boomer ever — on Facebook. Reid’s Celia is particularly distinctive. She is a woman who survived a long, unhappy marriage and who has built up no illusions about it; she’s no-nonsense and a little crusty. But she’s still open to new experiences. She hasn’t killed off her spirit. Alan has a softer shell, and a weakened heart, as he self-consciously pursues the woman he once failed to get.
The series, created by Sally Wainwright, expands outward from Alan and Celia to their families. Both are widowed and live with their daughters, and both daughters are undergoing profound changes. Celia’s daughter, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), is a headmistress who is separated from her husband and secretly engaged in an affair with a woman. Alan’s daughter, Gillian (Nicola Walker), is widowed and dealing with loneliness and her son’s grief. Alan and Celia are too wise to chew over the past and why their signals crossed some 60 years ago; they’re ready to love again right away. But their children aren’t ready for them to love again, and they provide a few obstacles to keep the plotline twisting.
Along with a script that is lighthearted and knowing, “Last Tango” is buoyed by the quality of the acting. Jacobi and Reid are so natural together, both while their characters are coyly getting to know each other again over coffee and then later, when they are more comfortably ensconced. They are completely ordinary people, and yet the actors make them special and lovely. Their conversations are clever and flirty, but also grounded in true feeling. Walker is touching as Gillian sleeps with an obnoxious younger guy out of desperation. And Lancashire is brittle and broken as the lost Caroline. They both add a necessary amount of bitter to the sweet.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.