British television personality Vivienne Vyle is a scalpel-tongued ice queen of a talk-show host who regularly baits her wretched, working-class guests — their lives are reduced to crawl titles like “My Son Calls the Wrong Man Daddy!” — until one of them punches her in the face on camera, and in the ensuing brawl a security guard falls on her. Recuperating in the hospital, Vivienne — whose Oprah envy is pronounced — has a personal transformation about the psychologically damaging freak show she runs. But because she’s played by her co-creator, Jennifer Saunders, the U.K.’s Iron Lady of narcissistic comedy, that revelation essentially amounts to: How can I make this the best, most successful freak show it can possibly be? (Better security, for starters, and an in-house psychologist she can refer to on camera for appearances’ sake.)
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The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle — Saunders’ latest black comedy, which first aired on BBC2 last year and appears here on Sundance Channel starting this Sunday — is a decidedly less boisterous wallow in the muck of exploitative show biz than her legendary fashion-and-folly romp Absolutely Fabulous. Patsy and Edina were pickled priestesses of celeb culture whose escapades you could call highball screwball. But Vivienne Vyle is a clinic in hell. It’s Saunders’ aim for the laugh-trackless solemnity of discomfort comedy à la Larry Sanders or The Office — where someone behaving so abominably (Vivienne shouting “Door!” so a minion will open the one right in front of her) is played as reality yet is meant to be funny — and this time around she only occasionally offers any comic insight into backstage venality. Everything seems in place for a deliciously batty, Cooganesque ego trip — and Saunders has always had a special hold on portraying the self-obsessed — but there’s no lift-off. I am enthralled, however, by Miranda Richardson’s juicy turn as Vivienne’s producer Helena, a loopy tyrant who dresses like a wrecked party girl and has a nanny-raised child who only speaks Spanish. I could watch Richardson frenziedly strangle that language in phone calls to home all day long, and it’s an acknowledgment of the joys of shtick I wish the rest of the show had.