This isn't the worst time in history to be middle-aged. Coronavirus stalks care-homes and strong-arms the elderly into glorified hibernation. Young people live out what should be their most exciting years in purgatorial deep-freeze. But for those in the middle, life sort of stumbles onward. Working from home, being around the kids all day, bingeing on Netflix – it's not the cruellest fate, is it?
Well, worry not. Here comes author, screenwriter and one person rom-com industry David Nicholls with a soul-scorching reminder that life from 40 until your first hip-replacement is actually rubbish. Your kids think you're an idiot. Your wife wonders how she ended up married to the real-life Alan Partridge. Nobody laughs at your dad jokes anymore. You've become the tragic, Jeremy Clarkson version of yourself.
Nicholls is adapting his own 2014 novel and is, thank heavens, interested in more than just simply piling on the pathos. Us (BBC One, 9pm) is a moving meditation on slouching through the business end of life and lays bare chilling truths about what happens to relationships once spring and summer are over and autumn settles in.
It begins with Tom Hollander’s uptight biochemist Douglas being woken in dead of night by wife Connie (Saskia Reeves) with news she’s decided to leave him. She isn’t looking for a divorce or anything so grand or dramatic. However, the relationship has fizzled and she wants to start over.
This is awkward on more than one front. Firstly, Douglas had no suspicion she felt this way. Also, they've just booked a "grand tour" of Europe, which involves dragging 18-year-old son Albie (Tom Taylor) from Paris to Madrid via Amsterdam and Rome.
The Continent-hopping will bring an extra measure of wistful anxiety to Us’s target audience of metropolitan Britons. This is how it used to be, they will sigh. Europe was their playground, with nary a passport or visa required. How unbearably poignant.
Nicholls isn't above soppiness, as readers of bestsellers such as Starter for Ten and One Day will know. But he is never simply sentimental, always taking care to sprinkle a little arsenic in with the slush. Here, in the first of four episodes, the tartness comes via flashbacks to a young Douglas and Connie (Iain De Caestecker and Gina Bramhill), as they begin their courtship.
I won't lie: these scenes are terrifying. That long-ago time when they were fresh-faced and free and had trendy haircuts and crinkle-free complexions is … the 1990s. We know this because they have period-appropriate fashionable fringes and are listening to Primal Scream and Portishead (and also because of simple maths). Pardon me as I pull my Nirvana smiley face T-shirt over my head and scream.
The ghost of Richard Curtis's greatest hits occasionally makes its unwelcome presence felt. There is, for instance, an absurd early sequence in which Douglas chases Connie down the street in his socks and which only Four Weddings-vintage Hugh Grant could carry off. Yet these are merely a blips in an opening instalment that weaves together heartache and slapstick to often sublime effect.