After reluctantly plucking this title out of DVD Talk's screener pile - that is, DVD review copies nobody wanted - the British (ITV) series Life Begins (2004-2006) turned out to be nothing like I had anticipated. The DVD's unattractive cover art doesn't really sell the program well, and the description on both the front and back of the case refers to it as a "hit comedy" to the extent that I was expecting something like a conventional sitcom. Instead this engrossing, extremely good character-driven show, primarily an hourly drama, turned out to be not unlike the films director Mike Leigh made about 15 years ago, about ordinary middle-class people with the kind of problems most television programming executives wouldn't touch in this age of reality nonsense and visceral titillation.
The show's focus is Maggie Mee (Caroline Quentin), a 39-year-old housewife who gave up work at an early age to raise two children, Rebecca (Ace Ryan) and James (Elliot Henderson-Boyle), now teenagers, with her hard-working husband Phil (Alexander Armstrong). Though Maggie and Phil haven't been getting along particularly, Maggie nonetheless is blindsided when Phil suddenly announces that he's leaving her.
As Phil tries to recapture his youth, moving into a hip, bachelor apartment and almost immediately commencing an affair with a younger co-worker, Anna (Naomi Allisstone), Maggie struggles to come to grips with this whirlwind of change and betrayal. While Phil enjoys the benefits of parenthood but none of the responsibilities, Maggie's kids are unsympathetic to her grief and mountain of new problems; they begin drifting toward Phil's new girlfriend and her promises of taking them to Disneyland.
Maggie's unhelpful mother, Brenda (Anne Reid), blames her, not Phil, for the separation, and all the neighbors feign sympathy but seem only to be mining her for gossip about the break-up. It gets worse. Maggie's closest friends Clare and Guy (Claire Skinner and Stuart McQuarrie) like the kids seem to be favoring Phil and Anna over the clingy, desperately lonely Maggie. Meanwhile Maggie's father Eric (Frank Finley, as always - superb) is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Maggie eventually bites the bullet and slowly begins putting her life back together. She muscles her way into a job at a small travel agency, where neither her new boss nor her two svelte, 20-something co-workers want the the overweight, matronly Maggie around. As far as they're concerned, she's a wet blanket on the office's youthful energy.
More dramedy than comedy, Life Begins is frequently sardonically humorous, but really about 80% straight drama. It's a great show, a breath of fresh air in a medium dominated by programs utterly lacking its intelligent, observant writing. Though Maggie's children (at least after the first big batch of episodes) are typically jaded, iPod-wearing, videogame obsessed teenagers, and underdeveloped by the show's writers, all of the other relationships, particularly Maggie's with Phil and with her parents, are at times almost unnervingly realistic.
As Maggie struggles to pay her household expenses, she learns Phil is planning an expensive vacation with Anna. This prompts her to schedule mediation over their financial arrangement, but then Phil blows her off and she's forced to consider seeking formal child support. Phil comes off as a first-class jerk, but the show's writers don't go overboard; it's easy to see how the pair might have enjoyed many happy years early in their marriage, and how over time it deteriorated.
Once Maggie begins taking charge of her own life with the kids, the series becomes much more involving, partly because her growing assertiveness comes in realistically small steps, in little victories at work, at home, and in holding her own with Phil, who early on repeatedly takes advantage of her.
The show is very entertaining and of interest to a wide audience, though it must resolute especially with middle-aged women who have gone through what Maggie does in the course of the show. At its center, of course, is Quentin's marvelous performance, though the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent.
Video & Audio
First things first: though labeled as "Series One," this three-disc set actually contains both series (season) one and two, 13 shows in all. (An additional six episodes, reportedly the last by design, were aired in 2006 and are not part of this set.) The 16:9 enhanced widescreen presentations (at 1.78:1) look very good, and this reviewer detected no PAL-to-NTSC speedup or artifacting. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo is up to contemporary broadcast standards, but there are no subtitle options. The DVDs are otherwise bare-bones. No text bios, no episode summaries, no Extra Features.
Addendum: There is a major problem with this set. Disc 3, which is supposed to include Season/Series Two's episodes 4-8, in fact is missing episode four. In its place, Image Entertainment mistakenly repeated episode four from season one. This reviewer is awaiting a response from Image Entertainment. Updates will be added as soon as they become available.
Released with barely a whisper of publicity, this set is a real find for fans of intelligent contemporary drama. It's worth the extra effort to seek this one out at your local video store. Chances are if you rent it you'll either want to watch the entire run of shows over a few days or rush out or buy it despite its pricey SRP. Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.