“Vicious”: Derek Jacobi as Stuart and Ian McKellen as Freddie. (Courtesy of ITV/Brown Eyed Boy Limited 2013)
TV critic

“Vicious,” an unambiguously titled British sitcom premiering on most PBS stations Sunday night, stars Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as Freddie and Stuart, a couple who have lived together for five decades in a large and fusty (and lampy) apartment that in some ways serves as a closet-of-no-return.

Time has passed them by — Freddie’s stage ambitions can be summed up by his portrayal of a villain on a single episode of “Doctor Who” a million years ago; Stuart spent his life keeping house and keeping his homosexuality hidden from his (still alive, constantly phoning) mother.

Now they’re what some would describe as a pair of bitter old queens, spending their days taking tea and swiping their catty claws at each other, mostly for sport, with mean one-liners about age, appearance and death.

“Do you think I can pass for 50?” Freddie asks, hopeful about an upcoming audition.

“I don’t think you can pass for alive,” Stuart responds.

Your response to such banter depends entirely upon your cultivated appreciation for this form of telly. Line-for-line, “Vicious” (which runs for seven episodes; British network ITV has ordered a second season) would seem depressingly outdated and especially boring if delivered with American accents; but it somehow takes on a whiff of Oscar Wilde-like charm simply because it’s British.

That means it will satisfy a certain PBS fan base, but that doesn’t mean that it’s particularly good. McKellen and Jacobi seem to have a fun time slinging the insults, but before long, the show starts repeating itself, almost as if it’s going senile right before our eyes. Some of the lines are quite funny, but there’s a general misanthropy running through it that gets tiresome.

Only occasionally do Freddie and Stuart stop loathing one another long enough to acknowledge their co-dependent love — and such moments don’t come as often as they would if “Vicious” was being held to an American sitcom standard, where sentimentality is required syrup. Instead of the usual kiss-and-make-up scene at the end of each episode, Freddie and Stuart’s cruel repartee is leavened somewhat whenever their friend Violet (Frances de la Tour) pops by, accepting and returning their jabs.

When a handsome young man named Ash (Iwan Rheon) moves into the flat upstairs, Freddie, Stuart and Violet are equally smitten. With an apparently inactive gaydar, they spend a considerable (and sad) effort trying to figure out his sexual orientation, since they come from an era where no one would ever dare ask — or tell. When Ash parts the velvet drapes in their living room, revealing a marvelous view outside, the old men hiss like vampires at the sunlight. Metaphor received.


(30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on WETA and MPT.