Friday, May 13, 2016

Big Big Love in Small Places: Sky 1's After Hours

Rob Kendrick, Jaime Winstone, and James Tarpey star in After Hours

Some things you'll do for money /
And some you'll do for fun /
But the things you do for love are gonna come back to you /
One by one.

– "Love, Love, Love" by The Mountain Goats.
Last fall, as audiences worldwide were gearing up for the new Star Wars film, Netflix subscribers were immersed in the dark reality of Jessica Jones' Hell's Kitchen, and our (morbid) fascination with Donald J. Trump was still in its near infancy, the UK channel Sky 1 premiered the first six-episode season of After Hours – a small comedy, set in a small town. After Hours is part coming-of-age story, part love letter to indie music, and it was one of the most delightful things I watched on television in 2015.

Set in Shankly, a fictional northern English village in decline (named, likely, in homage to The Smiths), After Hours is the first television project of John Osborne – poet, radio writer, Edinburgh Fringe-alum – and fellow poet Molly Naylor. Their story centres on recent high school graduate Willow Hannigan, played by James Tarpey (The World's End) in his first television role. When his girlfriend Jasmine (Georgina Campbell) breaks up with him and his short-term travel plans fall through, Willow finds himself suddenly stuck in Shankly with little to look forward to beyond the nightly pleasure he derives from tuning into a local Internet radio program called After Hours – finding solace and friendship in the show's hosts long before their paths ever cross. Broadcasting off a ramshackle canal boat, radio hosts Lauren and Ollie (Jaime Winstone and actor/musician Rob Kendrick) send their laid back joie-de-vivre out to the world, one streaming kilobyte at a time. After witnessing his break-up, Lauren takes Willow under her wing and brings him – literally – on board to help produce their radio show. Before long, Willow finds a new confidence and begins to realize that his small town still offers real opportunities – even if few of the financial sort.

The strange creature called Internet radio is perhaps a perfect analogy for After Hours itself – utterly local and inadvertently global. Lauren and Ollie do it for love: love of the music, love of the moment, and as a nightly celebration of their friendship. They play their favourite songs, drink heavily, and sing loudly along with every track they spin – and they don't really care if anyone is listening, and they rather expect that no-one is. And they continue to do it, every night, even enrolling Willow (and others) in their world.

John Thomson (left) and Ardal O'Hanlon in After Hours.
As British crime drama regularly welcomes us into small towns only to watch them get torn apart by grief, betrayal, and child murder (Broadchurch, Happy Valley), After Hours gives us a peek into what it can be like to live in a genuine community. Shankly is a world in which problems are as mundane (and real) as the risk of bumping into your recent ex-girlfriend at your local or the fact that no-one has milk delivered anymore. Most refreshingly, neither the writers or the characters of After Hours make these challenges any more or less than they are. Willow is confused and disoriented by the breakup, and he is understandably frustrated that all the small shops around town that could have hired him are shutting down. His parents (Father Ted's Ardal O'Hanlon and Susan Cookson) are sympathetic, if largely without understanding of his enthusiasm for the radio show and the odd ducks who run it. They are supportive, and loving, and present. Without mockery or melodrama, the modest realities that make up a whole life are laid out. The residents of Shankly aren't dumb or cartoonishly quirky (a mainstay in small-town comedies from The Vicar of Dibley to Corner Gas): they're regular people who are working things out the best they can. Mistakes are made, and sometimes hearts are broken, but the only villain here is perhaps the almost universal challenge of knowing one's own heart. Naylor and Osborne have the greatest respect for their characters, and, without leaning on irony, they invite us to celebrate their struggles and their triumphs.

Over the past six years, I've written here on television shows that powerfully and creatively explore the darkest corners of the human condition, but life is also full of joy, friendship, and small and large journeys of discovery. As odd as it may seem, After Hours reminded me most of all of 2015's The Martian, which was packing us into theatres at the same time After Hours was airing on Sky 1. A well-told story of human intelligence and perseverance in the face of reality, The Martian was – like After Hours – a narrative without a bad guy to speak of, full of decent human beings struggling to do their best under difficult circumstances. In this era of anti-heroes and dark comedy, human-sized stories like this can be as welcome as they are surprising.

True to its conceit, After Hour's soundtrack is a character unto itself, with each 30-minute episode packed with tracks that range from indie classics (The Smiths, Pixies, The Lemonheads) to indie charmers (Modest Mouse, The Mountain Goats) and almost everything in between. The comfort and joy Willow, Lauren, and Ollie draw from the music they love is unmistakable. If Naylor and Osborne had only the single ambition of reminding their viewers of the delight of having a few pints and singing along with abandon to a song at full volume, After Hours would still be an unqualified success.

Every once in a while, a show comes along that speaks with such simplicity and honesty that it attaches directly to the heart without bypassing the brain. Beautifully written and acted, understatedly produced, and seemingly the product of sheer joy, After Hours is one of those shows. I've been talking up the series since I saw it last fall but had been waiting for a reason to write on it, anticipating either its renewal for a second season or its inevitable streaming on Netflix. (Current British series seem to be appearing on Netflix with such regularity these days that I've begun to take it for granted.) Six months later, neither has yet happened – though, thankfully, Sky 1 hasn't announced its cancellation either. Here's hoping that we'll see another season.
 – Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010. 

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