There is something cheering about watching people have a worse time than you, as sitcom writers know. You may have a failing relationship, or an annoying parent, or a terrible job or a car that won’t start, but there is a certain type of comedy in which all these things and more happen to a character at the same time.
One of them is Semi-Detached (BBC Two), which had a pilot episode last year and is now here for a full series. The lead character is Stuart (Lee Mack, with a moustache that makes him look like a cross between Paul Chuckle and Boycie from Only Fools and Horses), a hopeless everyman beset by disasters. In the pilot, his girlfriend went into labour, his ex-wife’s current husband chopped off a thumb and his coke-snorting dad was arrested for a cow-related incident. That all happened in real time, in the space of 20 minutes.
The series proper is a little less manic. Stuart’s gay dad (Clive Russell, taking what could have been a cringeworthy role and making it the best thing here) is still an unwanted house guest, luxuriating in a life of drugs, spray tans and sex with the Amazon delivery man. Stuart is still engaged in a passive-aggressive relationship with his ex-wife and her husband (Samantha Spiro and Patrick Baladi), who for some reason live directly opposite. And Stuart’s fugitive brother (Neil Fitzmaurice, who played the odious Jeff in Peep Show) is still hanging around.
At the heart of things is Stuart’s relationship with the much younger April (Ellie White), now that they have a baby together. This first episode sketched the backstory of their unlikely union: they met in Magaluf, where she mistook him for a carefree party animal, rather than a middle-aged DJ with digestive problems and a house in suburbia. For every moment that April fails to ring true - nobody, but nobody, uses the word “bonkers-tastic” - is another where she brings to mind exactly the kind of hippy-dippy posh girl who took an extended gap year in Southeast Asia and now lives on spiritual self-help guides and green juice.
And for every moment when Semi-Detached falls back on ancient sitcom tropes - the useless man who can’t cook, the warring neighbours - there is one that hits the target, like April’s backhanded compliments about Stuart’s ex: “So much energy for someone of her age…” It’s a decent stab at a mainstream comedy, although a whole series played at this tempo might prove exhausting.