The idea of a TV comedy starring Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen as an older gay couple is seductive. Matching their seasoned skills with a newish subject matter for TV? Yes, sirs. But alas, the reality is quite a different matter. “Vicious,” a British import that premieres Sunday night at 10:30 on PBS, is a lost cause that brings down even the two esteemed British masters.
The show is, essentially, three dated, clichéd jokes told over and over again. No. 1: Freddie (McKellen) and Stuart (Jacobi) are vain gay men who constantly throw nasty barbs at each other, despite having been a couple for 48 years. They play a Ping-Pong game of insults and oversized scowls, while the audience laughs loudly. No. 2: They both flirt openly with their new young neighbor, an attractive straight guy named Ash (Iwan Rheon), despite his disinterest. No. 3: Their best friend, Violet (Frances de la Tour), also keeps hitting on Ash, despite his disinterest.
So, to summarize: You’ve got two bickering queens who dread getting older spending their time leering at and dive-bombing a straight guy. You’ve got their spinster pal also leering at and dive-bombing him. And you’ve got all of them on an old-school stage set, batting out broad punch lines for the stands and getting hyperactive encouragement from a live audience whose hysteria has probably been accentuated by a laugh track in post-production.
One of the producer-writers of “Vicious” is Gary Janetti, who spent many years on the similarly vaudeville-esque “Will & Grace.” But “Vicious” is 1,000 steps behind “Will & Grace” in terms of keeping awful stereotypes about gay men alive. Freddie and Stuart are out of the “Boys in the Band” mold, as they emote histrionically, pouting at the other’s withering wit, obsessing about not looking their age. Stuart talks to his mother every day, of course, but he hasn’t told her he’s gay, which Freddie doesn’t mind. We know that deep down — signal the “aww” on the sitcom laugh track — they are devoted to each other. But most of their partnership is based on mutual contempt.
Maybe the cartoonish gay stereotypes would be less off-putting if the material were more inspired. But it’s all “How dare you” and “Nicely done, Miss Marple” and “I’m surprised you could see it through the milky film that coats your cataracts.” At one point, Violet says she’s afraid of getting raped. “For God’s sake Violet nobody wants to rape you,” Freddie tells her impatiently. “What an awful thing to say,” Violet replies. Really, it’s hard to imagine writing that is more out of touch.
After watching three episodes of “Vicious,” I began to get a vicious headache. Would I watch this show again, just to see McKellen and Jacobi? Not a chance, Blanche, not a chance.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.