You & Me review: This diabetes-inducing show would be forgiven its mawkishness if it was earned
What makes us care about the characters in a television show? It’s a strange relationship we have with them, an unfamiliarity that turns into something akin to family. Soon enough, you’re a Soprano or a Simpson, part of the Brady bunch or in with the Ewing clan. And then TV can play its great emotional trick: it can put these characters through tragedy and triumph, and make the viewer feel that it’s theirs. This is the well-worn pathway that You & Me, the new ITVX three-part drama, forswears. Instead, we are dropped into a world and asked to care, straight away, when things begin in media misery.
“I don’t want to tell a sad story,” Ben (Industry’s Harry Lawtey) tells up-and-coming actress Emma (The End of the F***ing World’s Jessica Barden). “I don’t want them to be a sad story.” He’s talking about his twins: Ben is a solo parent to a little boy and girl whose mother, Jess (The Witcher: Blood Origin’s Sophia Brown), died in the opening scenes of the show. Jess flittered into Ben’s life, flirted for a few minutes, hooked up for a few minutes, got pregnant for a few minutes, and then died. And that’s Ben’s foundational trauma. Sorry pal: it’s a sad story.
“After the worst, most unimaginable, thing has happened to them, do you really think that people can be happy again?” Emma asks Ben, in return, because – believe it or not – she has her own foundational trauma. They are two people, finding each other and processing grief together; because, whatever Emma might say, there is life after the “unimaginable” (all imaginable, seemingly, in the mind of the show’s creator Jamie Davis). And if you doubted that, for a minute, then the show’s score is there to constantly correct you: sombre strings accompany car crashes and heartbreak and cancer diagnoses, while a jaunty little Mariachi band of positivity strikes up whenever there’s a glimmer of happiness.
Lawtey is a fine actor and depicts the shadow of loss confidently – though he’s hard to buy as either the father of twins or a freelance journalist. Barden, meanwhile, has done better work elsewhere, in less relentlessly maudlin projects. And Brown might be frustrated that her character is used largely as a prop, and doesn’t get much of an inner-life until the third episode (by which point, I suspect most viewers will have given up). “I don’t think about relationships in the distant future,” says a dead-eyed Ben, “because I don’t think about the distant future.” But soon enough You & Me shows its hand: it is far more about what can be gained in new relationships than what is lost from old ones.
If you can make it through the gloopy sentimentality, there are a few snatched moments that might work. Young, beautiful people flirting is always enjoyable, and the show has an almost pornographic relationship with south London in the summer. Whether meeting on a park bench on Telegraph Hill or night swimming in Brockwell Lido, there’s a fantasy quality to zone-two life. It’s a vision of sunlit uplands totally at odds with the hysterical timbre of most of the plot. “The summer with you was amazing,” trembles Emma, as the chill winds of autumn set in. “Just being with you felt like nothing I’ve ever felt before.”
You & Me would be forgiven its mawkishness if it was earned. Think about how This Is Us or Grey’s Anatomy weaponised weepiness: they tantalised and tortured viewers over multiple series. But You & Me doesn’t want to earn it. Instead, it demands it. And those demands are written in the most treacly, sappy, diabetes-inducing way possible. It’s a cheap shortcut to emotional impact, but, in the end, it’s still really hard to care.