Poor Little Rich Christian: Hulu’s Intermittently-Insightful “Rev.”

Poor Little Rich Christian: Hulu’s Intermittently-Insightful “Rev.” March 29, 2014

“First let’s say morning prayer. But let’s say it quietly, in case somebody here has got a hangover.”

That’s from the first episode of Rev., a Hulu series about an Anglican vicar in a tough London neighborhood, and it captures the show’s best side: a humorous acceptance of human weakness, combined with a seriousness about prayer. There’s a lot to love about Rev., so although I’m going to be critical, I want to start by highlighting what’s so intriguing and endearing about the show. Its first two seasons are free on Hulu and they’re worth checking out; I haven’t seen a show like this one before.

The show was conceived by James Wood (not that one!), who comes from a vicarry family, and there’s a definite familial-humor feel to it. There’s a low-rent realism about Rev. Adam Smallbone’s constant struggles with bureaucracy and coworkers, who pressure him to raise funds and put bums in seats, or criticize him for doing overly-Catholic liturgies. (Their term for this is “creeping up the candle,” which I adore: What’s at the top of a candle?) The serpentine Archdeacon is probably my favorite character, with his sleek black gloves and his insinuating smile. He’s got a definite tang of Francis Urquhart about him, or an unusually velvety Richard III.

There are some nice, sharp touches–my favorite is probably the use of drinking and smoking as class equalizers–and a strong theme of our inability to love others as well as they deserve. Adam is always shortchanging somebody. Even when he lies–and he’s very casual with the truth!–it’s because he’s a people-pleaser in a situation where pleasing anyone fully is simply impossible.

Perhaps the show’s most consistent theme is the humiliation and failure which attend any attempt to lead a fully Christian life. You guys already know me, so you know that I loved this stuff: Adam singing in his terrible tiny chalk-voice, Adam being all but thrown out of the Archdeacon’s car at a roundabout, Adam getting a bad online review. (“Why do I bother?” “Well you certainly didn’t that time.”) Adam not quite realizing the transparency of his crush on the C of E school’s headmistress. (In re her shoes: “They’re like little boots!”) Adam confessing, to the Bishop of London, that he’s fudged the truth about something important; Adam on ecstasy (long story), caterwauling, “I’m a leper tooooooo!” There’s a scene where Adam preaches, “I walk with the brokenness of the world,” as the local cassock-chaser practically has an orgasm in her seat; it’s hilarious but also quite moving.

But you’ll notice a refrain in that paragraph: Adam, Adam, Adam. The show’s biggest problem is that Adam is basically the only real character. Everyone else, even his wife Alex, exists solely as puppets in his psychodrama. And he’s a specific kind of privileged, self-pitying Christian which… which I admit I also am in many ways, but because the show never lets other characters be fully real, it makes self-pitying privileged Christianity the normative kind.

There’s a scene toward the very end of season two where my notes say, “Why isn’t [spoiler’s] partner at the big Christmas lunch? And why isn’t Alex upset that her father just told everyone [something most women would prefer to keep private]? Oh right, I know why.” It’s because the writers pretty obviously don’t think from within the worldview of those two characters. Gay people and women exist basically to demonstrate qualities of Adam’s life and personality. They don’t have independent points of view.

Colin, Adam’s homeless friend/irritant, is a partial exception: Sometimes he’s totally the Magical Homeless Man, full of sad hard-won insights; sometimes he’s Comedy Homeless Man who randomly switches religions because hey, it’s not like people like that really believe things; but sometimes he’s genuinely able to get us outside of Adam’s head. When he’s written badly the show becomes gross (the second episode is particularly bad about this: Colin gropes a girl at church, and the entire situation is 100% about Adam’s self-image) but when he’s written well he’s actually allowed to become an audience-identification character, which is lovely, fun, and radical.

There are various other problems: The show is weirdly totalizing in its view of How to Do Church (liberal Anglicanism is the only way, everybody else is tacky and evil, probably in that order) and it allows sincere statements of doubt, but only ironically-undercut statements of faith. I think some of the animus toward Catholics expressed by the characters is real–there’s a “jokes at other people’s expense” feel to a lot of that material. Which, fine, other people have churches, I get it, but it’s less fun to watch. Sometimes the vicars have sex!! stuff gets boringly, self-consciously edgy, although in fact that happens a lot less than I expected. And Adam’s missishness and self-pity do become wearying.

I’m pretty conflicted about this show. Its inability to escape Adam’s orbit creates both storytelling problems (other characters get warped to fit the needs of the story the writers want to tell about Adam) and spiritual problems. The show is more boring precisely because it is so fully, unshakably centered within the one point of view we already see a lot of: the harried, self-pitying white man unsure of his masculinity. But when the show is good–Adam’s hospital visit at the very end of season one; the episode about his ultra-successful archnemesis; almost all of his prayers–it’s poignant, funny, and sometimes convicting.

The first episode is one of the best (and the second is the worst–I’d simply skip it if I were you), so if you want to try Rev. out, just start at the beginning.

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