"Vicious," which premieres Sunday on PBS for a six-episode run, is something of a throwback to an earlier age.
It is to begin, a sitcom, which, though once a fund-raising-friendly staple of American public broadcasting, has retreated somewhat in favor of mysteries, literary adaptations and nature documentaries.
And it belongs to another tradition, that of the British geriatric comedy, as represented by "One Foot in the Grave," "The Last of the Summer Wine," "As Time Goes By" and "Waiting for God." Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, two men who have played both Hamlet and Lear, are the stars.
In terms of history and prestige, this would be something like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino turning up in the latest Chuck Lorre show, and in practice, undoubtedly much better. They play Freddie and Stuart, respectively, an old gay couple — each actor is gay and comfortably out, which doesn't absolutely matter but also, in a way, does — partners for 48 years.
Freddie is a still-working thespian of minor repute — the 10th-most-popular villain on "Doctor Who," he has recently learned — and major vanity. Stuart is his long-suffering housekeeping partner.
Like a senior George and Martha in a same-sex sitcom version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" their conversation consists mainly of trading insults, though the bickering is by now just the pattern by which they recognize one another. They know and you know that they are more than resigned to their intertwined fates.
They are accompanied onstage — "onstage" feels like the right word here, the theatrical experience of the principals making this live-to-camera show feel even more like a theatrical experience — by Frances de la Tour, Marcia Warren and Philip Voss as friends their age, and Iwan Rheon as a young person who moves in upstairs to provide straight lines and demographic range.
Once you accept that you are in for a certain kind of joke repeated over and over again — or three kinds of jokes, if you include those regarding the deterioration of mind and body and those about kids these days — and settle in to the show's rhythms, you find yourself, paradoxically, laughing more easily.
Some of the enjoyment does come from the performance; there is nothing inherently funny in Freddie's response to being reminded that it's his anniversary ("Is that today? I knew there was a reason I woke up vomiting"), but there is genuine pleasure to be had from the way McKellen says it.
I don't mean to say the scripts are bad; they're quite solid and speedy. But as a jazz musician might do something lovely even with a banal melody, McKellen and Jacobi — baritone to tenor — make beautiful, dissonant music together.
When: 10:30 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times