“Us” is about a couple’s last-ditch attempt to save what’s left of their crumbling marriage during a three-week sojourn through Europe with their mopey 17-year-old son.
But there’s much more to the new four-hour “Masterpiece” miniseries, airing June 20 and 27 on PBS (9 p.m. both nights).
Starring Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves, “Us” blends comedy, domestic drama, whimsy — and a generous dose of on-location scenery — in telling the story of Douglas and Connie Petersen (Hollander and Reeves), a middle-aged, middle-class British couple who embark on their long-planned holiday despite Connie telling Douglas their marriage is kaput after 20 years. “I need to find something else,” she says, before persuading a gobsmacked Douglas to make the trip for the sake of their teenage son, Albie (Tom Taylor), whose relationship with Douglas is dicey and who’s soon heading off to college. It will be one last time as a family unit, a time to “live in the moment” without having to think about the grim reality awaiting them upon their return to England.
By the time they reach their first stop, Paris (after an awkward train ride via the Chunnel), both Douglas and Connie are having second thoughts about their adventure. Despite their best intentions, they’re sending each other mixed signals and can’t quite overcome longstanding, underlying grievances plaguing their marriage. “I’m sorry if this is confusing. I’m confused, too,” Connie tells Douglas, who vows to change his ways in an effort to win her back. Albie, unaware of his parents’ marital state, tests the boundaries of his independence; he’s a fledgling photographer, the main source of tension between he and Douglas, and his insistence on spending time alone is testing his father’s patience. (Connie is more indulgent. “He’s only 17,” she repeatedly tells Douglas.) In Paris, Albie meets the free-spirited Kat (Thaddea Graham) while Tom, later in Venice, meets recent divorcee Freya (Sophie Grabol).
As the family’s journey progresses, “Us” intersperses flashbacks of the younger Douglas and Connie (Iain De Caestecker, Gina Bramhill) that parallel their real-time thoughts and interactions. Back then, they meet-cute at a party and fall in love, but the early seeds of future domestic discord are sown vis a vis their personalities: he’s a bookish biochemist who plans thoroughly; she’s a free-spirited artist with no confidence in her talent. By the time they’re married, Connie is already pregnant and their journey is just beginning.
The series is based on the titular book by David Nicholls and was shot on location in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Venice. The cities lend an air of authenticity to the seriocomic atmosphere and are used by director Geoffrey Sax as another character in the story, each locale pushing the narrative forward (or sideways or backward). Tom stays in the same Venice hotel in which he honeymooned with Connie 20 years earlier; Kat reappears on the scene in Amsterdam at a critical juncture. And so on.
Hollander, who played unctuous sidekick “Corky” Corkoran opposite Hugh Laurie in “The Night Manager,” shows a softer side of himself here. Douglas is a nerdy dad with a sharp sense of humor; he loves his wife and son and truly wants to change, but finds it easier to express himself through anger and a healthy dose of denial. Reeves is solid as the enigmatic Connie, who’s looking for a drastic life change; she clings to a thin thread of hope that she and Douglas can suss out their issues but finds their history repeating itself. Taylor, tackling his first co-starring role, acquits himself nicely.
The two episodes fly by before you know it. You’ll want to spend a few Sunday nights with this family, warts and all.