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‘Vicious' humor with McKellen, Jacobi on PBS

By David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle

Vicious

10:30 p.m. Sunday, PBS

A sitcom about a longtime gay couple who constantly squabble and snap at each other may not have much currency in the 21st century. But when they are portrayed by Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, who needs to be up to date?

Freddie Thornhill (McKellen, “X-Men”) is an actor of a certain age whose only income is whatever he gets in royalties from a cigarette commercial made years before. Nonetheless, he still lives the part of a major thespian, asking his partner, Stuart Bixby (Jacobi, “Last Tango in Halifax”), every day if he’s received a call from his agent. The answer, of course, is always the same.

Freddie and Stuart have been together for 48 years, although Stuart has yet to tell his mother the nature of their relationship. He’s waiting for the right time, he says. When might that be, Freddie hisses: When she’s dead?

They have a feisty, sex-starved friend named Violet Crosby (Frances de la Tour, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) and a couple of elderly friends.

Watching “Vicious,” created by Gary Janetti (“Family Guy,” “Will & Grace”) and premiering Sunday on PBS, is not unlike going to a West End comedy. McKellen and Jacobi don’t act the way we’re used to seeing them perform in film and television, but, rather, as if they are holding forth on a real stage. Dialogue, much of it deliciously laced with arsenic, is not so much delivered as it is declaimed. Punch lines are punched hard, pauses timed to comedic perfection and facial expressions exaggerated for emphasis.

Another way you know this is a British show (beyond the obvious: that it’s about Britons, starring Britons, living in Britain) is that “Vicious” is almost unrelenting in its, well, viciousness. Moments of sincere affection between Freddie and Stuart are fleeting and rare. If this were an American sitcom, punches, if not punch lines, would be pulled, for fear of alienating the audience.

So leave your politically correct concerns on the doorstep, sit back, and let the venom wash over you like a sleet storm. McKellen and Jacobi, who are, of course, giants of their profession, are clearly having a lark with “Vicious,” and you’d be foolish not to want in on the fun.

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