Making a Case for Dark Comedy #2: Rev

Rev.'s Adam Smallbone played by Tom Hollander

An ominous presence hangs over season 3 of the BBC 2 comedy Rev
While the show has always dwelt on some pretty heavy issues regarding human nature, societal woes, and the struggles of being in ministry, the current season's narrative arc seems like one shambling downward slide for the show's protagonist Reverend Adam Smallbone, a well-meaning if ineffective Anglican priest of an East London parish. 

He barely sees his busy lawyer wife anymore while juggling baby watching duties (they just had their first child together) with pastor duties at St. Savior in the Marshes, a struggling congregation on the cusp of closing its doors due to poorly handled finances and general lack of attendance. As the looming threat of his church closing increases throughout the season Adam also finds himself nearly removed from ministry altogether due to a moral failure in a moment of vulnerability (I'll let viewers find out what that is on their own). Everything in Adam's life, personally and professionally, seems to be going down the toilet. Frankly, it's a hard season to watch, especially if you've invested in the characters over the past few years. It's difficult seeing them endure so much pain and bewilderment.

On the surface Rev. seems to be a pretty standard character sitcom with the more fly-on-the-wall single camera style currently in fashion. It's about a priest surrounded by clownish near eccentric parishioners struggling to make God's calling on his life work. But the show's creators (actor/writer Tom Hollander and writer James Wood) avoid the silliness and pandering of other British parochial comedies (like the good but often annoying Vicar of Dibley), even if the humor can be a bit cartoonish at times (e.g., the neighborhood druggy Mick, while always funny, is played too over the top to seem real, excepting the one episode where it seems like he might actually be on a path to recovery). Instead, the series focuses in on the significant internal and external struggles of its characters: Alex's, (Adam's wife) assumed but unacknowledged near-agnosticism, Colin's substance abuse, violent behavior, sexual immorality, and dawdling on the fringes of poverty, Adoha's passive aggressive co-dependency, Nigel's anal-retentive OCD and disappointment at not being fit for ministry, Ellie's relationally cold and erratic approach to relationships, and Archdeacon Robert's smuggery and half-closeted homosexuality. All the characters are lonely and aching, in need of each other and most especially in need of God. And they all need each other in the context of community. St. Savior's as a congregation needs to exist because they need to walk together as faltering disciples of Jesus.

The show has always had a dark side, but what remains unwavering throughout each episode is Adam's faith and devotion to God. Sure, Adam often rails against God, doubting he is present in his life and, like a modern day Job, is continually left wondering what God's plan is in the midst of all his tribulations. And sure Adam's continental (see: liberal) version of Christianity is on the opposite end of the spectrum from many conservative Christians. Yet Adam keeps praying to and seeking God, even as he cathartically puffs on a cigarette  One thing is clear: God is trying to refine Adam into a beautiful treasure, as the Apostle Paul speaks of in Second Corinthians chapter 4: 

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you." 

Indeed, we see this process played out metaphorically in episode 5 of season 3, the darkest episode in the series, where Adam becomes a flawed (as opposed to pure) Christ figure. Unable to serve his congregation and facing public humiliation, where various scenes from the Passion narratives in the Gospel's are paralleled to an unrelenting night of despair that finds Adam literally carrying his cross through the streets of London. In the end though Adam finds God again and is reassured (in a surprising appearance from Liam Neeson)* that "I will always be with you Adam."

There are various times throughout the duration of Rev. that we as viewers are tempted to judge the characters' behavior. I know I continually want to see myself as better than them all, especially the nearly always pathetic Reverend Smallbone. Surely, I think, I'll never be a flawed minister like he is. Surely I'll be more capable and stronger and able to hold a congregation together—unlike him. But in the end, the show confronts me with the everpresent realization of my life: that I need God and I need to be with God's people.

And I would never have had this realization while watching the show if it were not so dark, the situations so dire, and actual gains and losses were not at stake in the lives of each character, even while managing to still be funny, if painfully so. Rev. might be more than a bit depressing to journey through but I sure am thankful it exists.

Season 3 ends on a strangely ambivalent note in way that feels like it could be the series finale or the start of a entirely new chapter in the ministry of Adam Smallbone, his wife, and the group he's been ministering to**.  But ending on an unresolved note is fitting for a show like this which has portrayed ministers and the ministry in as true a light as I've seen in fictional drama. Until the end actually comes and Christ fully reigns on his throne the work here on earth is not done and God will keep working in our lives, ensuring we will become all he created us to be. And anybody who's been privileged enough to watch Rev. knows God surely isn't done working on the life of Adam Smallbone

*  Speaking of guest appearances, I have to say I love Ralph Fiennes recurring role as the Bishop of London. He plays the role perfectly, managing to be at once tender and intimidating, a man who is strangely devoted in his care of others and yet knows he's better that you, humble but still set a part from the pack. After all the different roles Fiennes has played throughout his career it's amazing to see the finesse he brings to such a small but important role.

**It should be noted that according to an interview actor/writer Tom Hollander stated  the series may not be returning for a while or even at all. The way season 3 ends makes it unclear exactly which direction Adam will take in his life, although his going back into the ministry seems to be evident. Even if he does go back to being a priest or serving somehow it doesn't seem like he could find a way to minister to the same group of people and in the same area of London.

Currently you can stream Season 3 of Rev. for free on Hulu, with the whole season available to HuluPlus subscribers:

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