What a surprise when an American concept gets reworked into a British series and actually works.
Hang Ups, inspired by Lisa Kudrow’s comedy Web Therapy – itself originating as an online mini-series – arrived on Channel 4 this year as a six-part sitcom starring Stephen Mangan. This October, the complete first season is available to own on DVD from Network.
Richard Pitt is trying to relaunch his career after the collapse of his group therapy practice. He comes up with the idea of a new form of therapy, carried out via quick-fire webcam sessions. His problems begin when he starts making friends with his clients and ends up counselling his friends; he interferes in his daughter’s affair, a loan shark exchanges a debt for therapy, and a boy becomes convinced Richard is his long-lost father. As if that wasn’t enough, his wife has booked him in for a surprise vasectomy…
Shot from the perspective of electronic devices, such as webcams or smartphones, Hang Ups offers the point-of-view voyeurism which once defined Peep Show. The intimate visual gramma takes a bit of getting used to – particularly the rapid editing which cuts between big close-ups and screens split up into busy teleconferences. It’s a slightly jarring, yet novel take on how to tell a story and places the viewer smack in the middle of the conversation. Both addictive and excruciating, it imposes the participatory intensity you’d normally experience with live stand-up or stage comedy.
Much of the series’ allure comes from the heavily improvised dialogue, with Stephen Mangan handing over a brilliant central performance as failed and flawed therapist Richard. They say the art of acting is reacting, and Mangan’s bemused and horrified reactions to clients’ confessions provide much of the comedy momentum. That, and the fact Richard is totally out of his depth as a practitioner; his lack of professionalism extends to manipulating the life of a generally nice person (just because he’s dating his daughter) to shouting down patients who get on his nerves. He’s the Basil Fawlty of counsellors, ingratiating himself onto those he takes a shine to and bullying others who get on his nerves. We also quickly learn that he’s in as much need of councilling as his clients.
With each mini session lasting a few minutes, a wide range of comedy characters are interrogated within a compact story arc. Big names such as David Tennant, Charles Dance, Jessica Hynes and Paul Ritter crop up in small but well-developed parts and the short vignettes offer fascinating insights into their worlds. There’s a strong flavour of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads here, if not within a more chaotic, digital medium.
Crucially, the humour is never at the expense of mental health, which itself is handled with respect and pathos. A memorable strand presents Daisy Haggard as a woman who has lived a life of terrible misfortune, yet she continues to maintain a happy outlook. Purposefully alarming and at odds to the tone of the show, her character succeeds in establishing how everybody has mental health and that many people conceal suffering behind an optimistic smile.
Network has presented all six episodes in brilliant clarity for standard definition DVD and the picture upscales admirably to 1080p. Details such as the tiny graphics embedded into the picture to simulate Skype and Facetime appear crisp and authentic in the frame. A minor caveat is that the closing credits seem myopically small and don’t translate particularly well within the constraints of DVD resolution. The disc is also thin on special features, which is a pity as presumably there’s a wealth of unused improvised material which could have been drawn upon for an additional scenes package.
Hang Ups is an innovative and engaging little series, showcasing how a story can be told through the most diverse mediums. Whilst its reliance on consumer technologies may date its approach, the pursuit to try something new puts Hang Ups well ahead of many comedies of the moment. Worth checking in for a session.
Cast: Stephen Mangan, Katherine Parkinson, Karl Theobald, Jessica Hynes, Alice Lowe, Conleth Hill, Bebe Cave, Celia Imrie, Finn O’Shea, Charles Dance, John Macmillan, Steve Oram, Harry Lloyd, Sarah Hadland, Lolly Adefope, Monica Dolan, David Bradley, Jo Joyner, David Tennant, Daisy Haggard Certificate: 15 Duration: 142 mins Released by: Network Release date: 1st October 2018