Righto, what deeply demented minds came up with this stuff?
Psychoville is a wicked piece of television that revels in twisted characters, grotesque comedy and its own dysfunctional ugliness. And I loved it.
It is indeed League of Gentleman‘s Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton who concocted this half hour mystery-comedy series. Both serve as writers and performers in the on-screen ensemble. As is their theatrical style, they also appear in multiple roles.
The plot of this most original tale begins with the delivery of a mysterious letter delivered to several unrelated residents across the UK: a children’s entertainer, a midwifery nurse, a blind millionaire, a pantomime dwarf, and an intellectually disabled mummy’s boy. All receive the same letter and all react with varying degrees of paranoia.
The letter is the only apparent link between disparate characters. In the first episode we become familiar with their unbalanced lives.
Mr. Jelly the clown (Shearsmith) is surely the world’s worst clown, begrudgingly “entertaining” children with his aggressive personality in between chain-smoking. Joy Aston (Dawn French in her best successor to Murder Most Horrid) is cheerful to the point of dementia as she instructs yet another class of expectant parents on the finer skills of baby-care. She is uneasily attached to a baby doll as if it were her own, living child.
Eccentric millionaire Oscar Lomax (Pemberton) lives alone in a mansion and spends his time shouting at a daily visitor whom he calls “Tealeaf” (Daniel Kaluuya). The latter is a young man serving community service and looks ready to make the most of access to a rich man whose wits have long diminished.
Snow White panto performer Robert Greenspan (Jason Tompkins) has a crush on his leading lady and is determined to ask her on a date. But his co-stars snigger at his aspirations and Snow White (Daisy Haggard) is too vacuous to notice.
Finally there is the simpleton David Sowerbutts (Pemberton) who lives at home with his mother (Shearsmith) in an unhealthy mother and son relationship. When she isn’t playing her keyboard the doting Maureen does everything for her child, right down to scratching dry skin off his back. David will finally land a job in the first episode, but saying it doesn’t go well is an understatement.
More twisted supporting players will unravel in subsequent episodes.
Psychoville‘s delicious characters would not be out of place in an episode of Little Britain. They are dark, garish, and the humour is sporadically offensive. But under director Matt Lipsey (Supernova, Jekyll) this is rooted in character comedy with an evil narrative elevating it beyond the realm of sketch. The appeal of the show lays in its excess, its masquerading performances and its underlying mystery.
How this cavalcade of characters will resolve the secrets of their letter, and how they will all come together remains part of the disturbing fun of Psychoville.