Across a six-part run, we follow wedding DJ Stuart (Lee Mack) as his life goes from crisis to crisis. He’s worried about his second marriage to the much younger April (Ellie White), who has just given birth to their young baby. His promiscuous gay father (Clive Russell) is still living with him and disobeying house rules about bringing home Grindr dates, while his criminal brother Charlie (Neil Fitzmaurice) keeps showing up on the run from the law. Over the road, his ex-wife and local MP Kate (Samantha Spiro) and her smug husband (Patrick Baladi) live with Stuart’s rebellious daughter Madonna (Sarah Hoare), and Stuart’s neighbours Barry and Sandy (Geoffrey McGivern and Cecilia Noble) have a knack for making things worse.
The unique gimmick of Semi-Detached continues to be its real-time structure – the episodes are just over 25 minutes long, and they encompass 25 minutes. This adds a real sense of urgency to events (as does the show’s very jazzy, drum-driven soundtrack), and it helps push the episodes into farce territory quite easily (in a good way). Writers David Crow and Oliver Maltman excel with some fairly layered plots, none of which are actually that similar. I was worried that the show would go down the route of the pilot and just constantly have random things happen, but not so – there’s actually a surprising amount of continuity to keep up with.
Writers David Crow and Oliver Maltman excel with some fairly layered plots, none of which are actually that similar
Unusually for a new BBC comedy, Semi-Detached is actually really funny. Part of this is down to the top-notch writing, with good gags and humorous situations stemming from them – I laughed out loud at least a couple of times every episode. But a lot of the show’s success is down to its cast. Lee Mack shines in a very different sitcom role to Not Going Out – Stuart is a man who lets every failing eat away at him, and who fails to see what to do as chaos ensues. He’s a fun and likeable performer, and I think his everyman persona really keeps the show grounded, even as it gets increasingly absurd.
This is an ensemble show, though, and everybody plays their part (often elevating their roles above some poorly-written and at times cliché characterisation). Russell and McGivern pretty much guaranteed laughs whenever they appeared on screen, both of them playing characters just the right side of bonkers. Baladi excels as the kind of oily figure you want to smack, and Spiro grounds some of events with actual gravity. Dealing with her dad’s ashes and a heart-to-heart at the hospital were both stellar scenes, the latter a piece of genuine drama that would not have been out of place in a considerably more serious programme.
However, much though I enjoyed Semi-Detached, I think there are two major issues with the show which keep it from being essential viewing. The show’s energy was good, but there were often times when events felt a bit rushed, and even a little contrived just to give the supporting cast something to do. Similarly, needing to offer a sitcom resolution within the confines of a real-time script means the story can just ebb out. In the second episode, Stuart spends all episode worrying about working a wedding – we end with him just calling the couple and saying ‘use an iPad’. It feels true enough, but it’s not too satisfying for the viewer.
Stuart suffers so many misfortunes, it really feels like kicking a man when he’s down, to an extent that I no longer found it funny
More significant is the characterisation of Stuart. He drifts through each episode, taking every blow and having no real agency, and I started to find it a bit frustrating. Indeed, in the final episode, Madonna asks why he lets everyone walk all over him, and he can’t offer an answer. This is no slight on Mack’s acting, but rather the writing never giving Stuart a chance. The finale does crystallise the issue – he suffers so many misfortunes, it really feels like kicking a man when he’s down, to an extent that I no longer found it funny. Others may vary in their perception, but I felt it became full-on tragedy at the end – Stuart is a victim of every circumstance but, try as I might, I could find little reason to actually root for him.
When I reviewed the pilot of Semi-Detached way back in January 2019, I wondered if commissioning it for a series would kill the magic of its gimmick. Fortunately, it doesn’t, and a mixture of strong writing and a good cast make it an enjoyable experience. Really, its flaws come with the restrictions it puts on itself, meaning it just falls short of being essential viewing, although I would still recommend it as one of the most novel comedies that BBC has put out in a long time.