Review: ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ on PBS is the fall’s best new show

Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi star in "Last Tango in Halifax."
(Matt Squire)

Oh, to live in a world where “Last Tango in Halifax” becomes as crazy-popular as “Downton Abbey.”

Both air here on PBS, although “Last Tango” is not under the “Masterpiece” imprint, and both feature British legends (Maggie Smith in “Downton,” Derek Jacobi in “Last Tango”). Also, both explore, with no shortage of sentiment or humor, the vagaries of time and tide as well as the essential significance of family.

In many ways — freshness of characters, complexity of insight, courage of conviction — “Last Tango” is the better show. But set present day, the BBC production lacks much of the accouterment that has made “Downton” an international addiction. And while the dialogue often sings, no character is granted the zesty one-liners of Smith’s Dowager Countess. One can’t quite see “Last Tango” selling any quote-emblazoned tea towels.

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Still it is, and you may quote me on a tea towel, the best new show of the fall. It’s a rapturous mix of absurdly fairy-tale-romance and frantic modern complications, set in the picturesque drear of Yorkshire and brought to life by masterfully shaded performances.

Based on creator Sally Wainwright’s observation of her mother’s second marriage, “Last Tango” tells the story of a widow and a widower who reconnect via Facebook and quickly admit, to themselves and each other, that the feelings they had for each other all those years ago still exist. But time is not the only obstacle this new/old love must face.

Alan (Jacobi) lives with his daughter, Gillian (Nicola Walker) and his grandson Raff (Josh Bolt) on a sheep farm James Herriot might have serviced. While Walker’s wonderfully contradictory Gillian tromps around in jeans and flannels, all chapped hands and moody competence, Alan provides the sweet, solid center of a family both financially and emotionally precarious.

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His early love, Celia (Anne Reid) was, as Alan tells Gillian, always a “bit better spoke” than the rest of his classmates. And indeed, though she too lives with her daughter, Caroline (“Coronation Street’s” marvelous Sarah Lancashire), Celia is part of a very different sort of life (i.e. class.)

Needless to say, neither daughter knows how to react to the other, much less the true love newly ignited in their Aged Parents. But true love it is, deftly and heartbreakingly captured by Jacobi and Reid.

Both performers are capable of doing more with a startled look or careful smile (not to mention the Yorkshire patois of “nowts” and “weres”) than most actors can do in seven pages of dialogue. The two also share the odd distinction of having taken Daniel Craig as a cinematic lover — Jacobi as artist Francis Bacon in “Love Is the Devil” and Reid in the stunning and unsettling “The Mother.” Make of this what you will.

Left to their own devices, Celia and Alan might dissolve into a soupy haze of exchanged glances and re-lived memories, so it’s a good thing they are not. Though different as chalk and cheese, Gillian and Caroline share a propensity for drama and complicated romantic lives that comes in mighty handy, plot-wise.

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Gillian is sleeping with a most objectionable young man while duking it out with her angry brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Caroline is semi-romancing a teacher named Kate (Nina Sosanya, also, weirdly, playing a woman named Kate in “Silk”) while fighting it out with her weaselly ex-husband.

Many things happen, often in laughably quick succession, during the six episodes of “Last Tango” (another season, hurrah, is already in the works) but they are well anchored by the sight of parents and children moving along similar journeys of discovery. With miraculous aplomb, Wainwright evokes the contradictory, infuriating and glorious mess that is family.

People say and do the most shocking things, but the script never falls prey to the simplistic and over-popular belief that it is one moment or another that causes things to unravel. Or that things ever quite unravel at all.

Family, in whatever state it finds itself, remains family; without forgiveness there can be no love. And without love, it really is all for nowt.


‘Last Tango in Halifax’

Where: KOCE

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)