“Did I say something funny?” Lucy Punch asks this about 21 minutes into the first episode of Vexed (BBC One, tonight, 9pm), the new series the BBC has decided is the very best it has to offer in the Sunday primetime slot that is one of its biggest shop windows.
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Let me stop right here, and say this clearly: Vexed is not good. To be clearer: Vexed is one of the worst things I have ever seen on television that wasn’t part of a news report.
In one way, though, I owe it a debt of thanks. Watching it, I realised, to my growing astonishment, that I actually couldn’t believe how bad it was. That’s a very precious gift. It’s rare enough that a programme comes along and stands out for being good. The majority these days just float by as dim echoes of one another in the same dulling, unending, undifferentiated porridgey stream of basic competency.
Vexed, though, is different. Vexed is so entirely bad that watching it made me remember that I was still alive. Alive! It’s a strange thing to say, when we’ve been ground down to the point we’re simply inured to so much TV being given over to the armies of Jeremy Kyle, the everlasting documentaries on the Jordans, Peter Andres and Peaches Geldofs, the ceaseless cooking, the Piers Morgan, the John Barrowman, the Ant & Dec, the BBC Three... But watching Vexed, I could actually feel my intelligence being insulted again.
And I was surprised. Gloriously, deliriously surprised. Just to learn that it was even still possible to feel my intelligence being insulted. Like a small, tingling signal of pain, flickering in from the nerve endings of a long-paralysed part I had thought I would never hear from again. A good pain. A good pain. To get down to details, Vexed is a drama, in which… or, well, actually, maybe it’s a comedy. Or one of those comedy dramas? That’s just it, you see. That’s what’s so strangely, magically enthralling about it: I couldn’t even tell what it was supposed to be.
There’s a giddy, almost dangerous sense of freedom that comes with that. It’s what makes Lucy Punch’s question – “Did I say something funny” – so very vital, but also so eternally unanswerable. She would as well ask: “When we all know we are all going to die, why do we all insist on going on?”
Did she say something funny? Well, let’s see. No. No, I don’t think that she did. I don’t think anyone in Vexed says anything funny at any point. But there is a chance I’m missing the joke. That’s what makes it so electric.
Watching Vexed is like an extreme sport. The TV equivalent of tombstoning. An adrenaline-pumping dive face-first down into a chasm of awful. There’s no safety net. No way of knowing when you’re nearing the bottom. There might not even be a bottom. It might just keep going down.
The closest I can get to describing the unsettling, but stimulating experience is that watching Vexed is like watching something you suspect might be a bad spoof of something you have never seen or even heard of. And because you haven’t seen or heard of the first thing, of course, you don’t know for certain whether the thing you’re watching now is supposed to be a spoof. You dimly suspect that it’s supposed to be funny, though, and wish someone would come and explain it all to you. Either that, or just get you the hell out of here. We’re through the looking glass, people.
I would say that it’s a fair guess that Vexed was distantly inspired by the interplay between Gene Hunt and Alex Drake that proved so mystifyingly popular in Ashes To Ashes. Again, it’s about a pair of police detectives: one is a man who says these vaguely blokey things, played by Toby Stephens; the other is a woman who is a woman – you know, she eats Maltesers and drinks wine and reads glossy magazines – played by Lucy Punch.
Stephens is a familiar face, and has been okay in things before. So, again, I’m at a wonderfully complete loss as to what he thinks he’s doing here. It could be despair: the despair of a man who has just read the script.
His performance goes like this: imagine Hugh Grant doing an impression of Ross Kemp, doing an impression of Hugh Grant doing an impression of Bodie from The Professionals. There are layers upon careful layers of badness to it. If, however, he had just spent every single scene simply standing staring silently into the camera, while beating a large dead haddock with a stick, he would have achieved much the same effect. There is a chance, meanwhile, that Lucy Punch is wasted in this. Once more, it’s impossible to say. But she has a name that’s fun to write.
Vexed, astonishingly, was written by Howard Overman, who also created Misfits, E4’s fairly enjoyable hit about young offenders with superpowers. When Misfits was commissioned for a second series, Overman said this in a press release: “As a writer there is always the worry that people won’t get what you’re trying to do, love the characters as much as you, or indeed find them half as funny.” Watching Vexed, you know exactly what he means.
They argue, this boy-girl detective TV twosome. They don’t like each other. The idea might be that they have “chemistry”. But then again, the idea might be they’re a spoof on characters that have “chemistry”. See what I mean? It’s impossible to say. You might, however, find a clue in a sample gag. Here it is.
In the scene where Lucy Punch asks Toby Stephens: “Did I say something funny?”, she asks him that because he’s giggling uncontrollably. They are in a flat where a woman has recently been beaten to death. Her bloody body still lies on the floor between them. Lucy Punch, being a woman, has just been flicking through the dead woman’s magazines. A running gag is these cops are so used to murder and chaos it barely registers with them.
I say running gag: it’s more a gag that’s dragged along, like the flayed, bleeding, long-dead body of a faithful retainer, handcuffed to the back of his mad master’s jeep in a desert dictatorship for some unremembered sleight, and left rotting there as a warning to others. The dead woman has red hair. Remember this. It plays an important part in the joke that’s coming.
So: Lucy Punch gestures around the flat and says: “There’s a big ginger…” She breaks off, because Stephens has started wetting himself.
“Did I say something funny?” Lucy Punch asks.
“It’s just that when you said ‘big ginger…’” Stephens replies, forcing words through his helpless hilarity, “I thought you were going to say ‘pussy!’”
That’s the joke. Vexed is really bad. You have to watch it.