There’s a lot to like about Aisling Bea’s Channel 4 series This Way Up, now returning for a second season, but the show’s knack for capturing the way that sisters actually talk to (and often over) each other is surely one of its most endearing qualities.
Scenes between Aine (Bea, who wrote the show) and Shona (Sharon Horgan, who produced it) are salvos of insults and in-jokes, powered by genuine affection. They have all the conversational shorthands of people who’ve spent their lives in each other’s orbits, trying to make each other laugh. It’s a difficult trick to pull off convincingly and with such economy, but Bea has managed to conjure up a convincing sister-lect that’s at once very specific and deeply relatable. One tiny scene in which the pair argued over a kitschy ceramic “egg duck” given to Shona by their Granny illustrates this perfectly - and made me laugh for far longer than I’d care to admit.
Series one began with Shona picking her younger sibling up from a rehab facility, where Aine had been staying after experiencing what she described as a “teeny weeny nervous breakdown.” As Aine made tentative steps towards recovery, she was on constant call, tracking her sister’s phone location in the middle of the night. Now, the dynamic has shifted slightly but significantly. Aine is doing well at work, continuing to teach English as a foreign language through the medium of Love Island clips (though she’s yet to ask her pupils to grapple with the grammatical slash existential conundrum “it is what it is”). She has also finally embarked on a tentative relationship with Richard, played by Tobias Menzies. The inconvenient fact that Richard is the dad of one of her pupils is an issue that she’s choosing to gloss over for now.
In the wake of a series finale that saw her publicly accept a proposal from boyfriend Vish (Aasif Mandvi) and snog her colleague Charlotte (Indira Varma) in the space of a few minutes, it’s Shona who appears to be floundering. “Sometimes you talk like you’re the only one who’s sad and it’s annoying,” she tells Aine in episode one, reminding her that no one has the monopoly on unhappiness.
It’s a lesson that Bea’s characters keep having to learn. In one scene, the emotionally distant Richard tells Aine that she’s “always so up.” It’s clear that he’s made the mistake of taking her constant barrage of jokes at face value, casting her as the cheerful rom-comic relief in his story, and a barely perceptible flicker of her eyes captures her realisation that he doesn’t really know her at all.
Filming for the second series took place last winter, meaning that there are perhaps more scenes involving video calls than there might have otherwise been, but they’re handled cleverly, like when the sisters FaceTime their mum (Sorcha Cusack) from a bridal shop. She brutally dismisses a potential dress as “neither here nor there” (“I want it to be really here or really there,” Shona sighs) and then announces her intention to wear a sari in the colours of the Irish tricolour flag on the day, “out of respect” to her future son-in-law’s Indian heritage.
In some cases, distance drives the plot forward: Vish is working away in New York (where Mandvi is based in real life), leaving Shona rattling around his flashy glass-fronted house in the suburbs with heated floors, a whole 20 minute train ride away from Aine in London. The empty space seems to amplify her worries about whether she is doing the right thing - and even worse, the egg duck looks very out of place.
As a sharp comedy from a female writer-slash-star, This Way Up has inevitably earned plenty of Fleabag comparisons, but Bea’s series is markedly different in tone. It’s less lacerating, more optimistic, and thanks to Aine’s chronic tendency to deflect difficult conversations with humour, specifically dad jokes, it’s often gloriously silly even when it’s sad (like Aine’s riff on a “pile of shit boyfriend” - the mountain of washing and other general detritus that lives on the other side of her bed).
The supporting cast are a delight (especially Kadiff Kirwan as Aine’s flatmate Bradley, and Varma as Charlotte), but it is the warmth and authenticity of Bea and Horgan’s double act that makes this show such a winner.
This Way Up continues on Channel 4, Wednesdays at 10pm. The whole series is available to stream as a box set on All4.