If you watch TV to unwind after a stressful day, Hang Ups can’t help you. Channel 4’s new comedy series is a singularly stressful experience. It’s inventive and funny, and every so often, a total screaming joy, but the concentration of human neuroses on display in just one episode gave me the urge to stare for a good hour at one of those moving waterfall pictures that used to hang in Chinese restaurants.
The bones of the premise are taken from Showtime’s Web Therapy starring Lisa Kudrow: a therapist offers troubled clients short bursts of online video chat counselling. The actors talk straight to camera, and largely, they improvise their dialogue.
The improvisation adds to the overall sense of derangement. Most of the characters are in need of psychological help, and clearly, a smidge also might not go amiss on the cast. The imaginations of episode one’s comic stand-outs Richard E. Grant and Sarah Hadland, for instance, are filthy, strange and quite excellent places.
In place of Kudrow’s venal, unscrupulous Fiona Wallace is Stephen Mangan’s desperate, cash-strapped Richard Pitt. His group practice having failed, Richard has started the new online business as a way to pay off his loan shark debts and contribute to the chaotic household he shares with his successful wife Karen (Katherine Parkinson) and their cohort of teenage children and hangers-on.
The set-up allows for a spinning carousel of comedy guest stars, which is this show’s real draw. In addition to the returning cast—Mangan, Parkinson, Grant, Jessica Hynes, Charles Dance, Conleth Hill, Paul Ritter, Karl Theobold—Richard’s clients and colleagues include characters played by Hadland, David Tennant, Lolly Adefope, Kevin Eldon, Steve Oram, Alice Lowe and many more. Take a look at the IMDb cast list. It’s everyone you already like in British comedy (and, because shooting takes up so little time—Richard E. Grant filmed all of his sections in a single morning—the potential for future guest stars and the ability to showcase new comic talent is boundless).
Hang Ups is also a satire which says something about modern life—chiefly, that it’s a total nightmare. Character comic Lolly Adefope plays a social media obsessive so recognisable that, like Richard, you slide down your chair and wince at every vocalised “hashtag”. Speaking through a series of screens, none of the characters really communicate. The episode is edited at such a pace that it darts around like a spooked eel from interaction to interaction, with ten cartoonish, stressful things happening all at once.
Families, relationships, parenting, careers, money… As a therapist, Richard should be the calm voice above the din, but he’s buried right at the bottom of a pit(t) of his own making. He can’t even control the contents of his fridge, let alone the lives of the people who rely on him. Mangan is a specialist in comic exasperation, and is therefore perfectly cast. (As the show’s executive producer and co-writer with brother-in-law theatre director Robert Delamere, Stephen Mangan cast himself—apparently he wasn’t his first choice).
With a back catalogue that brought us Peep Show’s first-person-perspective, sketch show Smack The Pony, and the excellently weird world of Green Wing, Channel 4 has a strong background in experimental, energetic comedy that invites variety. As stressful as it is to experience, Hang Ups is a most welcome addition to that list.
Hang Ups continues next Wednesday at 10pm on Channel 4.