One of the upsides of the everything-everywhere all at once streaming age is that TV series linger for longer. You can give someone a recommendation for a show from a few years ago knowing that, chances are, they’ll be able to find it and watch it that very evening. A corollary of this, however, is that perfectly serviceable new series can easily find themselves overshadowed.
So it is with Dreamland (Sky Atlantic), a not-half-bad comedy drama about the return of a prodigal child to a dysfunctional family in a rusty old seaside town. It is good, but not as good as the wonderful Back to Life, which shares the same logline. Dreamland is about a group of sisters behaving badly, but it’s not as good as last year’s Bad Sisters. It also happens to have been made by Sharon Horgan’s production company, who also made Bad Sisters, but it’s not written by and doesn’t feature Horgan. It’s a “nearly but not quite.”
Set in Margate, Dreamland begins with Mel (Lily Allen) returning home from a failed job in Paris. Her eldest sister Trish (Freema Agyeman) is pregnant with partner Spence (Kiell Smith-Bynoe), and being supported womanfully by her two sisters Clare (Gabby Best) and Leila (Aimee Ffion-Edwards). Dad legged it long ago and Mum (Frances Barber) is navigating the process of coming out. Meanwhile, Nan (Sheila Reid) is a Margate legend and incorrigible one-liner machine.
They all function just fine as a quirky, reliably comical TV family, until Mel appears as the narrative grenade. “Dreamland” – it hardly needs saying – proves to be ironic. The reason the drama itself never catches light is Allen’s Mel: she is set up as both main character and inciting incident, but never quite convinces in either role. This may be because Allen, the most famous name on the cast list but a name who is relatively new to acting, couldn’t carry a whole series on her own, or it may be because having set up a family in which everyone is interesting or offbeat, the writers then felt duty bound to give them all their own storylines.
The upshot, however, is that Dreamland feels skittish, unfocussed. Even with just six 20-minute episodes (and I’m all for brevity) it never decides who or what is its keel and what story it wants to tell. That would be fine if it was remorselessly funny, or the plot reveals gave you whiplash, but it isn’t, and they don’t. It is precisely the sort of show that is the best thing out there right now… except for all the others that are still out there, and are better.