Sal­ly4Ever is macabre hu­mour fir­ing on all cylin­ders

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - ARTS - JOHN DOYLE

There’s a man in Eng­land who cel­e­brates Christ­mas every day. For years, he con­sumed turkey and Brus­sels sprouts daily but was ad­vised to stop. He watches the Queen’s speech every day and opens a gift he’s wrapped for him­self. He started do­ing this when his wife left him.

This is all true. A doc­u­men­tary has been made about him, and he’s been writ­ten about. Thing is, what emo­tion does this story draw from you? Is it all very sad, macabre or just funny? In Eng­land, they might think dif­fer­ently from you and me.

Min­ing a stra­tum of con­fu­sions about how to re­act is the spe­cialty of Ju­lia Davis. Her com­edy, in the se­ries Nighty Night, How Not To Live Your Life and Camp­ing, is usu­ally called “dark” or “twisted,” but the re­al­ity of her work is beg­gared by the usual crit­i­cal terms. She trades in cringe-in­duc­ing, knuckle-gnaw­ing con­fu­sion. The is­sue of how to re­spond to the ma­te­rial she cre­ates be­wil­ders a per­son. Me, I think of her as Pin­ter-es­que. She shares with Ha- rold Pin­ter a gift for adding men­ace to ab­sur­dity.

Sal­ly4Ever (Sun­day, HBO, 10:30 p.m.) is her new se­ries, and it is funny in a fright­en­ing way. On the sur­face it’s straight­for­ward – a bored thir­tysome­thing woman Sally (Cather­ine Shep­herd) is tired of her stuffy boyfriend David (Alex Mac­queen), and just af­ter she’s agreed to marry him, she has a les­bian fling with the glam­our­puss Emma (Davis). It’s all about a woman throw­ing away a mun­dane het­ero­sex­ual life and find­ing bliss in a same-sex re­la­tion­ship.

But it isn’t. Emma, a char­ac­ter Davis plays with fu­ri­ous aplomb, even­tu­ally emerges as a shal­low ego­ma­niac. She is not the so­ciopath-les­bian fig­ure that has re­gret­tably fea­tured as a trope in Hollywood movies for a while. (From Ba­sic In­stinct to Black Swan; there is a school of study on this strange trope.) She is, un­der the glam­ourous, acid-tongued sur­face, just a lazy, ma­nip­u­la­tive, spoiled brat.

Within much of the com­edy Davis cre­ates is a livid por­trait of peo­ple whose lives are lim­ited and whose vi­sions of an­other, bet­ter life are non-ex­is­tent. In this, Davis is putting the Bri­tish class sys­tem un­der a mi­cro­scope. She’s dis­cov­ered a cat­e­gory of peo­ple who don’t re­ally un­der­stand their sit­u­a­tion or rec­og­nize a wider so­ci­ety. (Ex­trap­o­late what you like about Brexit.) They’re numbed. At times, this pro­vides op­por­tu­ni­ties for hi­lar­i­ous mock­ery. When we see Sally at work at a mar­ket­ing com­pany, we’re see­ing ma­te­rial as daft and un­com­fort­ably funny as the orig­i­nal ver­sion of The Of­fice.

A good deal of the hu­mour, sour but scathing, is aimed at the main male char­ac­ter, David. The most bor­ing man in Eng­land, ob­vi­ously. Re­duced to a mess of tears and need­i­ness by Sally’s les­bian fling, he can’t cope. There is fur­ther com­edy wrung from Sally’s in­cred­i­bly bor­ing par­ents. There is ex­plicit sex; there is toi­let hu­mour, and in the midst of it all, Emma, de­mand­ing at­ten­tion and cof­fee and pas­tries.

Some re­views will in­sist that Sal­ly4Ever is a mis­an­thropic re­la­tion­ship com­edy. There is dead­pan hu­mour ga­lore, for sure. Af­ter her first ex­pe­ri­ence with les­bian sex, Sally tells David she doesn’t find him at­trac­tive. “Since when?” he wails, tears stream­ing out of him. “I don’t know,” Sally says. “The last seven years or so?” Later, Emma sets out to de­stroy David. She mocks his pe­nis, and David coun­ters that his doc­tor told him it’s just be­low-aver­age in size. Emma says that doc­tors are told to say that to stop men from sui­cide.

What you’ve got here, as Davis cranks up Emma’s blithe vi­cious­ness, is less about same-sex flings and mock­ing mun­dane het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples than it is about Ju­lia Davis her­self as a com­edy writer. What Emma does in de­stroy­ing oth­ers is what Davis does with her out­ra­geous mis­an­thropic com­edy.

That’s an ex­trap­o­la­tion. What’s not mere the­ory is the Pin­ter-like sense of threat and in­tim­i­da­tion that flows un­der scenes of do­mes­tic life be­ing shat­tered by the in­truder Emma.

The three main ac­tors are su­perb. Mac­queen has the hard­est role as the pa­thetic David, and he is peer­lessly servile as a shat­tered man, a fig­ure of cringe-in­duc­ing fun. As Sally, Shep­herd is a mar­vel, a woman so bereft of plea­sure that she can­not do much in her life ex­cept stare glumly and nod her head oc­ca­sion­ally. Davis is, well, out­ra­geously com­pelling.

HBO is do­ing an in­ter­est­ing trick with Sal­ly4Ever. It airs di­rectly af­ter Camp­ing, the show Lena Dun­ham adapted from a Ju­lia Davis orig­i­nal but got wrong. Dun­ham ru­inously mis­in­ter­preted Davis’s hu­mour. Now we can all watch that mis­fire, fol­lowed by the orig­i­nal cre­ator fir­ing her hard, hi­lar­i­ous and of­ten har­row­ing hu­mour on all cylin­ders. It’s not for ev­ery­one. Depends on how you re­act to macabre hu­mour.

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