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These Are the Most Annoying People to Ever Fall in Love

PBS
PBS

Alice & Jack boasts the Masterpiece brand, two charismatic and engaging leads, and an initially intriguing story about the intricacies, complications, and madness of love. None of those, however, can outweigh the grating manipulations and frequent inanity of Victor Levin’s six-part PBS drama, premiering Mar. 17, which asks the excellent Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson to sell a variety of plot points that strain credibility to preposterous lengths. Despite a few genuinely touching moments, it’s far too daft to enchant.

In London some years ago, Jack (Gleeson) and Alice (Riseborough) meet for a first date facilitated by a matchmaking app. Jack is a reserved and sincere biomedical researcher determined to save the world one cured disease at a time, whereas Alice is a forward, shoot-from-the-hip financial wizard who wastes little energy on things (and people) she doesn’t want. No sooner have they met than Alice decides that she definitely wants Jack, inviting him to either depart as friends or come back to her apartment. Given how taken he is with her, Jack naturally opts for the second option. Post-sex, Alice says that he’s wonderful and then kicks him out, telling him not to call or text. The look in her eye—equal parts smitten and sad—indicates that she’s immediately fallen hard for him, as he has for her, and yet when he does reach out the following day, she ignores him. When Jack sees her that night with another man, he takes it on the chin and tries to move on with his life.

This is the recurring structure of Alice & Jack, with the two repeatedly coming back together because they’re wildly in love, and then separating because, well, creator/writer Levin likes the idea of pushing and pulling his protagonists in an overly melodramatic manner. Alice will eventually be revealed to have lingering daddy issues and Jack will be presented as a sad-sack romantic, but the frequency with which these people stymie their own happiness is so extreme that it resonates not as a symptom of their short-sighted self-destructiveness but of endless screenwriting contrivances. Those begin in earnest once they hook up again three months later and, after Alice allows him to stay the night, they visit a museum and have a petty tiff that hurtles them apart for a year and a half—the first of numerous silly developments that ring false considering their apparently deep connection and affection.

Alice & Jack continues to leapfrog into the future at random intervals, so that the next time we see Jack, he’s the husband to Lynn (Aisling Bea)—whom he meets at a reparatory screening of Seven Beauties—and the father of a baby girl named Celia. Blessed domesticity, however, is no match for his enduring feelings for Alice, who pops up without warning and asks him to accompany her to her mother’s funeral. In light of his present situation, her request is absurd, not to mention selfish and cruel. Jack responds by stupidly lying to his wife about the person he’s taking to the ceremony, gets caught, and then cops to the fact that he never got over Alice, thereby detonating his marriage and marking him as both a jerk and a fool. Levin means for this to be an illustration of the duo’s wild, irrational through-the-ages amour, yet it mainly comes across as two people repeatedly yo-yoing about without any care for their own (or anyone else’s) well-being.

Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson sit in a field in a still from ‘Alice & Jack’

Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson

PBS

Though Riseborough and Gleeson are a charming pair, their characters’ entire dynamic rests on a foundation of magical-dizzying-reckless love that one never feels in Alice & Jack; their emotional union is more of a fictional conceit than a discernible reality. Consequently, the increasingly imprudent things they do in the name of their passion simply prove vexing. After Jack blows up his marriage, only to have his beloved skip out on him again, he receives an out-of-the-blue wedding invitation from Alice and decides to go with young Celia in tow. He also agrees to walk Alice down the aisle as her best man. And then he additionally agrees to give an impromptu speech at the rehearsal dinner praising her many attributes. Such behavior goes beyond unlikely and straight into abject implausibility, and it has the effect of inspiring disdainful frustration with them both—two individuals who keep making insane requests of each other, and horrible mistakes for themselves, because they refuse to just get their heads straight and be with each other.

Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson sit in a field in a still from ‘Alice & Jack’

Andrea Riseborough and Domhnall Gleeson

PBS

Over the course of Alice & Jack’s six episodes, the egotistical and controlling Alice keeps the ardor-addled Jack in everlasting limbo, and by the proceedings’ midway point, it’s enough to make one scream—or, at least, to view them with annoyed exasperation. Not helping things is a score of ceaselessly twinkling piano that turns everything patently maudlin, and attendant shots of Alice and Jack smiling at each other with a mix of profound care and melancholy, the latter born from their understanding that they’re too screwy to be a successful couple. Still, from start to finish, the problem is that Alice and Jack don’t seem thwarted by uncontrollable love and personal hang-ups but, instead, by a phony tale that makes them take constant, unnecessary self-sabotaging action.

In its final episodes, Alice & Jack stops beating around the bush and dives headfirst into outright exploitative terrain designed to bring on the waterworks. By the time its tragedies strike, though, the series has so undermined itself through one silly incident after another—lowlighted by a wacky trip to a health clinic where Alice plans to get pregnant via artificial insemination—that it only elicits contempt. With merely a few perfunctory peripheral characters rounding out its cast, Levin’s drama wants to be an intense, up-close-and-personal snapshot of two people in the throes of star-crossed love, tossed this way and that by a bond that can never be equaled or, no matter how far it’s stretched, be broken. Alas, regardless of Riseborough and Gleeson’s best efforts, the material’s raft of phony twists and turns shatters any sympathy for their plight and transforms the show into a head-smacking two-hander.

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