11 January 2004 | Yrmy
There's more to life than this.
This may have been more enjoyable if I had not seen it hot on the heels of Wilson's long-running bravura One Foot in the Grave. The inevitable comparison that resulted serves to highlight why Life as We Know It is funny and yet somehow so much more ordinary.
Wilson is Alex Cameron, the can't-really-be-bothered patriarch of the Cameron family and a small-time journalist churning out little columns about his suburban life from the comfort of his living-room desk - a more mellow and less hilarious take on his seasoned mannerisms than the sardonic rage of his Victor Meldrew role. Cole is strong if somewhat over the top as his tempestuous wife Lizzie, a recently retired headmistress who cannot quite shake the habit of ordering the whole Guildford community about. These two veterans are given room to move and shine, but the family children are mostly just stereotypes: Kay's Harry is a devious, money-grubbing hustler whose schemes are frustrated by his parents and his own ineptitude and who would actually vote Conservative (shock! horror!); Coomes' Sarah, a cheese-brained nymphomaniac; and Chequer's Nick (who seems a bit too young to fit in the set-up), largely a talking piece of furniture. The family has got a dog as well, but only as a requisite television-family prop. Most episodes revolve round Lizzie's compulsion to defuse some brewing scandal or find new meaning to the family's life - much to the embarrassment of Alex, who usually succeeds in both torpedoing and salvaging Lizzie's ventures.
I don't deny the series has its share of good gags and a few nice guest performances (e.g. Alvey doing another variation of his grey-mouse-with-an-edge routine as a vicar who goes spare after his wife leaves him for another woman). It is a nice, routine sitcom, and still above most of its contemporary American counterparts. But so much of it's ultimately a fluffy and safe, lacking in freshness, depth and gravity. It constantly tries to point out how it's making fun of the (supposed) conservatism of Middle England, but its own quick retreats back to middle-class mediocrity after a bit of supposedly risqué escapades and its nervously devil-may-care attitude towards sex and family that it tries to pass off as open-mindedness are hardly the cutting edge of satirical rapier.
I'm sure writer Aitkens is trying to rekindle some of the fires of his hit Waiting for God (with Cole reprising her role as a moral crusader and Wilson taking over from Graham Crowden as a mellower counterweight), but that series had genuine seriousness about it in its depiction of society's attitude towards the elderly and a scathingly cynical attitude towards the upward-mobile assigned to care for them. And it is that same dramatic weight and contrast that also made One Foot in the Grave so much more compelling. That series turned the conservative, suburban life of aging people into a kind of surreal theatre of everyday cruelty of accidents, humiliations and frustrations, where a tear was as close as laughter and the best way to cope was to sneer indignantly at the vagaries of fate and casual cruelty with the cry "not yet, you bastard!" (I'd assume it was not just normal allusive showmanship that had the show's writer, David Renwick, name many of the episodes after Edgar Allan Poe's stories) In the face of such absurdities, the homely indifference and easy solutions of Life as We Know It don't really stand a chance.
On the bright side, this was still a better series than Wilson's other 2001 attempt at a sitcom, the painfully lopsided High Stakes, which saw him and Jack Shepherd waste their talents on hit-and-miss material.