I’m vexed by Vexed – is it moonlighting as Moonlighting?

Vexed: Episode 1

Lucy Punch and Toby Stephens star in Vexed

Proclaiming your new show as a “Moonlighting for the Noughties”, as director Matt Lipsey does on the BBC Comedy blog, proved to be something of a double-edged sword as Vexed‘s debut left me feeling genuinely, well, vexed as to whether this was merely a shaky start for a series with potential, or simply not that good. Even now, 48 hours after watching the first episode, I’m still unsure.

Drawing comparisons with the ground-breaking 80s show starring the then unknown Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd certainly sets the bar high. As I have said in a previous blog, Moonlighting was a wonderful show with a distinctive style featuring rapid-fire, dialogue-heavy scripts and an experimental nature which would, for instance, see characters address the viewers direct or burst into song at random. It laid out a template which has been often imitated since.

David Addison (Bruce Willis) and Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) - the original and still the best

In short, Moonlighting was ground-breaking. Vexed is not.

That’s not to say the series does not have potential – it does – but much of it is frustratingly untapped in this debut episode.

Vexed promotes itself as a comedy-drama, a cop show that isn’t really a cop show, but is more about the relationship between its two ill-matched central protagonists, Jack Armstrong and Kate Bishop, played by Toby Stephens (Die Another Day, Robin Hood) and Lucy Punch (The Class, Doc Martin).

With police procedurals flooding our TV schedules – and with ITV demonstrating with Law and Order that it is very easy to produce a pale imitation of its US parent – the lack of emphasis on this aspect is welcome. The case around which the episode loosely revolves – a serial killer who is targeting lonely single women via purchases made on their loyalty card – is simple enough. (And if you hadn’t identified the killer before the mid-point of the episode you were probably half asleep.) But the heart of the story is the nascent will-they-won’t-they relationship between Jack and Kate as they are thrown together for the first time. Jack is the equivalent of Willis’ David Addison, the detective for whom the job comes a distant second to his personal mission of chasing women and having fun; Kate is Shepherd’s Maddie Hayes, his uptight, by-the-book and unwilling partner who initially appears to have nothing in common with him.

Toby Stephens as Jack Armstrong in Vexed

It is here that the series’ wobbly foundations start to show. Whereas the relationship between Moonlighting‘s David and Maddie crackled with energy, Jack and Kate’s arguments struggle to muster even the slightest spark (a problem which also confounds the murderer’s attempts at self-immolation). The duo have an escalating argument in a car which ends with each attempting to talk over the other – very Moonlighting – but that is where the similarity ends. David and Maddie would have exchanged four times as many quips at twice the speed, and then jumped out of the car, slammed the doors simultaneously and continued the argument right into the next scene.

Worse still is the apparent lack of chemistry between Stephens’ and Punch’s performances. Individually, there was something endearing about both Willis’ David and Shepherd’s Maddie, but together their relationship was explosive – it just worked, brilliantly. For me, Stephens appears to be trying a bit too hard to instil some quirkiness into the character of Jack, who is neither particularly funny nor sympathetic, and Punch’s Kate doesn’t really evoke any reaction from me one way or the other. Combined, I can see what writer Howard Overman (Misfits) is attempting to set up between the pair, but the chemistry simmers rather than sparkles, and at times it appears the two actors themselves are unclear whether to play a scene dead straight or to insert tongue into cheek, and consequently settle on somewhere vague in between.

Lucy Punch as Kate Bishop in Vexed

And perhaps this is Vexed‘s biggest problem, that it rarely deviates from the middle path in search of the extremes, where the best TV shows often reside. It is neither funny enough to be a comedy – although there were enough genuine laughs to keep me interested – nor serious enough to be a drama; instead it ends up being a slightly confused mish-mash of the two. Jack and Kate are certainly different people with different outlooks on their work, but they are nowhere near the polar opposites that David and Maddie were, which is what generated the real sparks in the dynamic between them.

The writing and characterisation don’t overly help either. Jack’s maverick nature is underlined by the fact that he is willing to forego investigative work for a suit fitting appointment. (What a rebel!) Kate follows the rule book to the letter, but is consistently portrayed as being a bit dim, only to jump to conclusions about her husband in true ditzy blonde style and then behave every bit as unprofessionally as Jack does. There isn’t much depth for Punch to work with here. And overall, the plot feels pedestrian and flabby, and in desperate need of an injection of pace.

It’s not all bad, though, by any means. We do see glimpses of what the series could become if it can up the comedy quotient (Jack’s inept supermarket chat-up line: “Costa Ricans – good people” is genius) and continue to self-referentially poke fun at the police show genre (such as Jack’s admission that he doesn’t know how he can afford his swanky bachelor pad on a policeman’s salary).

Overall, Vexed‘s opening episode is disappointing because so much of it is a one-paced, one-note affair which would have benefitted both from being cut down to a running time of 45 minutes rather than 60, and from a critical eye to sharpen up the story and characterisation. It is doubly frustrating because the format does possess great potential to play with the hoary cliché of the straight cop/edgy cop partnership in a self-knowing, gently self-mocking way.

If you like this and want to see what Vexed aspires to be, track down the DVD box-set of Moonlighting. If it can become half as good as its role model in its remaining two episodes, it could yet be a very good series. It isn’t yet, though. Not by a long chalk.

Vexed continues on BBC2, Sunday at 9pm.

Rating: 3/5

Links:

BBC Vexed home page

Trailer (Youtube)