Hulu’s recent UK import This Way Up will undoubtedly be compared to Fleabag and Catastrophe, and it’s easy to see why. For one, the series co-stars Catastrophe co-creator (and all around funny person) Sharon Horgan as Shona, the sister of the series’ main character, Aine, played by creator and writer Aisling Bea. That blend of creator-driven storytelling along with a darkly funny, almost pleasantly melancholy tone manages to be both poignant and entertaining, even as the series eschews a plot for a character study of what it means to start over after your life came crashing down around you.
Like Fleabag, This Way Up begins in the aftermath of a world-altering event in the life of its protagonist. Rather than the death of a close friend, though, the series opens up with Shona picking Aine up from a mental health facility following her sister’s nervous breakdown. As is commonplace in shows like this — especially with Horgan’s brand of humor — Aine’s release and presumed recovery isn’t the somber affair it might otherwise have been. Instead, Bea and Horgan treat it with an irreverence that tells the audience all they need to know about the intimate nature of the sisters’ relationship and their similar personalities. It’s a useful getting-to-know you moment in which Aine and Shona discuss the facility’s shortcomings (there was no jacuzzi, as advertised) with the woman finalizing Aine’s release, as though they were leaving a Yelp review about a hotel.
The scene also functions as a how-to-watch guide for the audience, as This Way Up is essentially a series of long, often funny, usually semi-uncomfortable scenes of heavy dialogue between two or more people that don't go anywhere particular, but nevertheless say a great deal about the characters in question. In that regard, Bea, along with director Alex Winkler, has filled her series with a cast that includes, Indira Varma (Game of Thrones), Chris Geere (You’re The Worst), Aasif Mandvi (A Series of Unfortunate Events), and Tobias Menzies (aka, the hardest working man in show business). And though This Way Up doesn’t really function as an ensemble — it’s told almost exclusively from the perspective of Aine — the sizable cast grants it plenty of room to move about from episode to episode, sampling a variety of seemingly day-to-day interactions as a way of understanding who these people are and how they function within the various dynamics that make up their personal lives.
Though the series is about Aine’s recovery and the aftermath of her nervous breakdown, This Way Up is firmly rooted in the present lives of its characters. By not giving in to the temptation of using flashbacks or some other narrative device to fill the audience in on the specifics of her recent experience, Bea is able to paint a fuller picture of who Aine is over a longer period of time. The gradual unveiling of Aine’s emotional struggles grants the series the ability to ostensibly be in two places at once: Aine’s current day-to-day life and her recent past. And by not focusing on the specific details of that past, This Way Up delivers a more fulfilling portrait of a woman trying to pick up where she left off, no matter how shaky her first steps may be.
The core of the series is the relationship between Bea and Horgan, as Shona is in a constant sate of worry about her sister’s mental health, while also navigating an increasingly confusing personal life that includes possibly taking the next step with her longtime boyfriend, Vish (Mandvi), and confronting the attraction she feels toward her exciting new co-worker, Charlotte (Varma). Aine, meanwhile, is juggling her job as an ELL (English-language learner) teacher at a community college and helping a young French boy connect with his estranged father (Menzies), following the death of his mother. To make things more complicated, Aine and Menzies' character are clearly attracted to one another, though she’s still getting over her past boyfriend, played with a familiar smarmy sweetness by Geere.
Despite the expansive cast and the differing relationships on display, This Way Up doesn’t feel overstuffed or that it gives anyone short shrift. That’s even more impressive when you consider the series is comprised of six (roughly) half-hour episodes. In doing more work in 23-ish minutes than most shows do in twice that time, Bea’s charming, melancholic comedy can be binged in an afternoon, and still leave audiences wanting more. Though it may not crackle with the same impossible energy as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, nor does it turn profanity-laced tirades into pure poetry like Catastrophe, This Way Up takes the idea of happy-sad television to a new level, one that is ultimately rewarding.
This Way Up season 1 streams on Hulu beginning Wednesday, August 21.