Making comedy out of the ups and downs of the adoption process is a bold move by most standards. Infertility and comedy aren't, after all, the easiest of bedfellows, and there will be no shortage of people like myself, ready to roll our eyes at the first sign of cliché and censure any attempt to create cheap laughs (for an example of this, see 'Maybe Baby', or perhaps not).
Andy Wolton's new comedy, 'Trying', on Apple TV follows the journey of a young London couple (Rafe Spall and Esther Smith), whose decision to apply for adoption provokes a chain of events that bring them into conflict with each other and their immediate family, sending ripples through their wider circle of friends. It is shot in richly saturated primary colours, mostly in the vicinity of Camden Lock, offering a nostalgic, possibly mythical version of pre-pandemic living in the capital. The cast is outstanding. Imelda Staunton as Penny, a warm-hearted social worker unencumbered by social filters, with Oliver Chris (always good, but in danger of being typecast as a husband and father who overprioritises his own leisure time – see 'Motherland') and Ophelia Lovibond as the supportive friends for whom everything – solvency, children, fabulous kitchen – has come at some bitter personal expense.
Nikki and Jason are meant to be an every-couple – if that means it's normal to have sex on the top deck of a night bus because it's ovulation time. But, within half an episode, we're rooting for them, and as Nikki returns the baby she's cuddling to its super-smug mother ('Fashion editor for Vogue'): 'Hope he doesn't grow up to be a prick' she adds, absent-mindedly.
There are some great one-liners. 'Why does everyone look so miserable?' asked Nikki, at their first meeting for prospective adopters. 'Because it's a community centre', deadpanned Jason.
They soon find that everything about their life is up for scrutiny and judgment. On observing their fellow adopters, all high flyers, who are now, it seems, in competition for children, they wonder if they should 'move to a shittier borough' in order to look better by comparison. Little niggles about achievement are magnified; should they have better jobs, should they own a house by now? From my perspective, their life looked pretty wonderful. Filmed before the first lockdown in the UK, it's a pre-mask world where friends meet for coffee and are free to stroll around Camden Market like there isn't a raging pandemic. I'd expected to be moved by Nikki and Jason's infertility plight, not so much to cry self-pityingly at their freedom to have friends over for dinner.
The adoption process would not be entirely recognisable to those who have full experience of it. There is one hilarious episode where they are obliged to take part in a team-building exercise, involving role-plays about handling difficult or aggressive children; Trystan Gravelle is the course leader who enjoys his role-playing just a little bit too much and as I've just watched him as a humourless vampire in 'A Discovery of Witches' I really enjoyed the contrast.
I had to take issue with something that happens in episode eight, as anyone who has initiated adoption proceedings knows all too well that questions about IVF treatment and 'coming to terms' with infertility are usually dealt with much earlier in the process, not a whole year in, at the final panel hearing, for goodness' sake.
The neuroticism of new parents is well observed, as is the thoughtlessness of some family members. Paula Wilcox as Jason's mother is a great suburban pantomime villain, casually dropping remarks about 'second hand' children whilst downing another bottle of white wine. Her 'tell it like it is' mantra is recognisable to anyone who has had to endure the slurry pronouncements of opinionated frenemies who have watched too many soap operas and think themselves qualified to spray unsolicited advice. More one liners – 'they're bonding over racism' said Jason about their respective dads – remind us of the other conflicts that put stress on families. Neither does the writing try to keep out the rest of life. Jason's boss, the director of TESL College where he works, tells him in no uncertain terms that job prospects aren't great in the sector. 'Britain is finished', she said, flatly, before announcing she has taken a new job in Switzerland.
These political touches are a real strength of the show – though some may disagree. Starting off whimsical and twee (an obligatory ukulele and whistling – announcing the programme's easy-going nature), it has enough truth and warmth to make it worth our while. What could have been a Richard Curtis-style north London comedy (nothing wrong with that) develops strong, likeable characters that we absolutely invest in. A second series is in the making, and when it lands, I will be bingeing on it for two days straight, pandemic or not (let's hope, not).