When we first meet Áine, the fluently sardonic, kohl-eyed protagonist of This Way Up (Channel 4, Thursday, 10pm), her life has been recently turned upside down.
Standing in front of a desk, tightly beside her sister, the pair seem either stroppy or uncertain, as though unsure if they should wait to be told off, or complain about the service. They try both. “This is not a spa,” explains a patient receptionist, “this is a rehab facility.”
Beginning with Áine's release, Aisling Bea, the show's creator, writer and star, never parades her character's vulnerability: "I'm not being sarky," she tells Sorcha (Sharon Horgan), while quibbling about rehab's lack of a jacuzzi, "I'm being sassy."
That might as well be Áine’s character note, who dispenses jokes the way a squid dispenses ink: in concealing, protective clouds.
For the same reason, perhaps, it’s hard to get to know her, a woman given more personality in Bea’s absorbing performance than actual personhood.
This Way Up keeps the source of Áine’s trauma mostly out of view, for instance (she was admitted, we hear, following a nervous breakdown), but makes life in London seem isolating enough.
Four months later, teaching English to a group of immigrants through recaps of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Áine’s sass is undiminished. “Fill out those worksheets by Monday, or I’ll Brexit the lot of you,” she says. (Is that a deal?)
Behind its story of two supportive sisters – one needy but prickly, leaving constant comedy phone messages; the other a worrier but a go-getter, stalking her sister by iPhone app – lies another kind of fantasy, where a family of comedians exchange gags as easily as outfits. Assuring Sorcha of her wellbeing, Áine reports “a crack addict just told me I looked thin, so, you know…”
It’s characteristic of Bea’s nicely bruised comedy, but This Way Up goes out of its way to portray solidarity among London’s “outsiders” and “others”. Sorcha and her boyfriend Vish (Asif Mandvi) have a drinking game for whenever they see a woman or Asian in finance (Indira Varma’s striking Charlotte, they tell her, is worth a double tequila); a later episode brings Irish and Indian families into an adorably excruciating get-together; and Áine is always happiest in multi-ethnic company.
That makes her attraction to the upper-crust, awkward, impossibly humourless Richard (Tobias Menzes), whose estranged French son she tutors, seem like an unusually generic RomCom fantasy: stepping into Mr Darcy’s ready-made family.
For all the spice of its humour and the sharpness of its politics, the show’s heart beats to a more conventional rhythm. Áine just wants to belong.