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2 November 2017

Living the Dream would be a bizarre experience even if Hillary Clinton had won

The Sky One series sniggers at all things American, even as its stars aspire to them.

By Rachel Cooke

In Living the Dream (Sky One, Thursdays, 9pm), Jen and Mal Pemberton (Lesley Sharp and Philip Glenister) swap Yorkshire for Florida, where Mal has bought, sight unseen, a trailer park. The key words here are “sight unseen”.

If the family’s gleaming new house resembles Mar-a-Lago – “You can get anything in America if you try hard enough,” Mal instructs his saucer-eyed children, as if he were Donald Trump – the trailer park is not unlike a derelict Pontins, with alligators where there should be swan pedalos. Except that it is not really derelict: at the honking of a horn, several dozen long-term residents appear. What are they like, this crowd? Ordinarily, I’d blanch at the term “trailer trash”, but since much of the series’ so-called comedy appears to rest on their being exactly this, perhaps it will do for now.

Let’s put to one side the fact that this nice, decent family has willingly moved to the America of Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway. Watching Living the Dream would be a bizarre experience even if Hillary Clinton had won. How on Earth are we supposed to feel about it? As the first episode began and the Pembertons gazed greedily from the windows of their SUV at the endless signs for fast food, I told my lip-curling self not to be such a snob. What, after all, is the odd visit to an IHOP between friends?

No sooner had I sent my prejudices packing, however, than I realised I needed them. How else would it be possible to get anything out of a series that sniggers at all things American, even as its stars aspire to them? But it was no good. It seems – my parents will be so proud – that even when I try I am insufficiently condescending fully to appreciate Living the Dream’s realm of dumb preconceptions and non-stop cicadas.

The script, by Mick Ford (The Five, William and Mary), comes with stock characters whose foibles you can smell even above the smoke from their barbecues. The Pembertons’ lawyer? A crook. Their new neighbours? Swingers, I assume. Weirdest of all is the park resident called Aiden, a diminutive older man whose job it is to be amusingly camp. He wears pastel shorts suits and bow ties, has courtly manners and around his trailer are carefully tended flowers.

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Quite where he has come from, I don’t know: he seems to have been imported directly from a Seventies sitcom, possibly along with some of Jen’s wardrobe. Doubtless he wouldn’t survive for more than five minutes on a real trailer park. But at Kissimmee Sunshine, tattooed hulks who voted Republican in 2016 will tolerate even gay men if only they are able to hook up an illicit satellite dish.

While we’re on the subject of the US, let us briefly consider its TV critics. What are they on? Many of them – even some quite sensible ones – adored Downton Abbey, and while I find the new Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace dreary and a bit embarrassing, when they saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, they swooned like ladies’ maids who had spent too long pegging out the laundry in the midday sun.

Let me put you right, my dears. The dreariness comes from the manner of its telling. Sarah Polley’s adaptation is faithful to the book, which means that the story is told largely in flashback: easy to do in a novel; harder to pull off on screen. As for the embarrassment, it lies all about, like old snow. This is the cleanest, most shiny and wholesome 19th century you’ve ever seen: even the vomit-strewn hold of the ship on which the young Grace Marks sails to Canada from Ireland looks vaguely picturesque.

Sarah Gadon puts in a fine performance as Marks, the former servant and murderess (or is she?) who, when we meet her, has been in prison for 15 years. But Edward Holcroft, who plays the head doctor to whom she is telling her life story (her supporters hope that his analysis will help secure her release), comes off like your average waxwork. Judging by the jaunty strings on its soundtrack, Alias Grace hopes to be puckish – and gently feminist, albeit in a rather trite and anachronistic way. But its beating heart is, alas, irredeemably soppy, all figgy pudding and fainting fits. 

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over